The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story HEARTBREAK GRASS

There was a man who lived in my district and this man had gone South to fight the Americans and when he came back a year and a half later he had no arms, no legs, and he was blind.

I called him Uncle, like us youngsters would address our seniors. Uncle Chung was thirty-one when he returned home as a quadruple amputee. A blind war veteran. I was eighteen and about to be drafted to join those destined for the South. When I saw Uncle Chung the first time I knew why many boys my age grew alarmed of being drafted into the army. Uncle Chung used to work as a machinist. He was once a big man. But the first time I saw him, limbless, he looked to me more like a freak I saw years later in the South, a country boy burned by napalm, so far gone he looked during nighttime like a glowworm, and his father would charge each neighborhood kid ten xu to come into the house to watch the human mutant.

I saw Uncle Chung on a day the herbalist I worked for sent me over to the man’s house with the medicine. The medicine. Always the medicine. And the wife. Each time Uncle Chung’s wife came to the shop to consult with the herbalist, I would hang back from leaving, sometimes to run an errand, so I could listen to her melodious voice and steal glances at her while trying to look busy in the shop. She was perhaps in her mid-twenties but looked older with the way she rolled her hair up and tucked it into a bun, so when she turned her head you could see the long curving nape of her neck. White or pale blue was the color of the blouse she wore. Just white or pale blue. And always the first customer in when the shop had just opened. The early morning light would cast a pallor on her face, and her ink-black eyebrows only made her face paler. Yet despite the anemic white of the undernourished, the unwell look, she was pretty. The city was full of women her age and older. Now and then you saw men—many had gone South and most of them never returned.

One rainy morning I went to their house with the herbal medicine. Down an alley through the standing water floating with trash to a stucco-yellow matchbox dwelling in a housing project. Its green door was left ajar. Stepping in I heard a man’s singing voice:

If I were a dove

I’d be a snow-white dove.

Spring and then summer.

The flowers, the flowers, the flowers.

You say aren’t they pretty

And I say

Aren’t they really.

I looked down at a man sitting on a pallet. The gruff voice stopped, the man turned his face toward the door. His skin, his eyeballs were yellow, the mucus yellow. I couldn’t tell if he was blind, but I could tell those eyes had the look of fake eyes you put in stuffed animals. But his song about the pretty flowers struck me. What would he see now but his own disturbed memories? He kept nodding—I wasn’t sure if he had any control of it—and he had a large head matted with tousled black hair that covered his ears and the collar of his shirt. The old olive-colored army shirt, with its long sleeves cut off, revealed the stumpy ends of his severed arms. You could see the rotten-wood brown of the flesh—what was left of his upper arms.

I told him I brought him the medicine and as I spoke I looked at his full wiry beard. If his wife refused to shave it for him, I thought, it’d one day hang down to his neck. Then his torso. He must have been a big man, aside from his large head, for the only part left of him filled out his army shirt. His torso was as thick as a boar. He wiggled on his rump. “Make me a pipe,” he said as if he knew me, or I were someone he used to boss around.

I stood eyeing him, a squat hunk of meat sitting on two slabs of flesh called thighs. What looked like his shorts were a pair of army trousers shorn at the knees.

“Don’t stand there!” he snapped at me, his voice as viscous as if spoken through a mouthful of glutinous rice.

“I brought you your medicine, Uncle,” I said and bent to put the herb packet next to a water pipe that sat before him. It was a long bamboo pipe in old yellow, and near the end with the bowl to receive the tobacco, the yellow had become stained with black smoke. The pipe stood on an angle, harnessed by a wide bamboo strip that went around the trunk and came down to rest on the ground like a mortar tube on its bipod.

“Make the pipe,” he said. “Then you can go.”

I just shook my head at his authoritative voice.

“Don’t you know how to light a pipe? Boy?”

“I do, Uncle.”

“Then light my damned pipe. And get out!”

Light your own bong! But I stopped short of ridiculing him. I didn’t pity him. At first sight, he struck me as freakish. An overbearing freak. Then I thought I’d better set the tone for myself.

“You’ll see a lot of me, Uncle,” I said to him politely, “as long as you need Chinese medicine. And I don’t take orders. Not from strangers.”

“You a prince?” His voice twanged. “Some sort of a pampered shit?”

“If I were, Uncle, I wouldn’t be here bringing you this measly medicine.”

“Did your pa teach you manners? Or is he too busy making drugs?”

“My ma and pa died a long time ago.”

“So you’re an orphan. No wonder.”

“I can behave, Uncle.”

My calm voice had him lost for a moment. He rotated his jaw then said, “How old are you?”

“Eighteen, Uncle.”

“You be joining the army soon, eh?”

“Right. The way things are.”

“You know what I did for a living before the war?”

“What did you do, Uncle?”

“I was a foreman in a machine shop.”

I thought of lathes and mills. Those shops must be busy during wartime. Hearing nothing from me, he leaned his head to one side as if to determine in his mind where I was. “In the army I was a senior sergeant,” he said. That fit him, I thought. Some were domineering just by their nature. He went on, “Used to do all the things myself. My woman didn’t need to lift a finger. Now, now, the world’s turned upside down. Man has to beg from a woman’s hand. When you’re down and out, you’re worse than a mutt. I can’t even piss or shit unless she lets me.”

His voice was flat. In it I sensed no self-pity. Like he was telling me about the weather. I thought of walking out but I changed my mind. I could see the pipe’s bowl had no tobacco. “Where’s your set, Uncle?” I asked him.

“Look around,” he said tonelessly. “Set shaped like a persimmon.”

The bare room had two metal chairs. Under one chair sat a lidded pot. It looked like his toilet pot. The only piece of furniture was a black-wood cupboard. The ornate flowers embossed on the cupboard’s doors gave it a vintage feel. It must have belonged to his once-proud past before the war ruined him.

“Can’t find it?” he said, keeping his head still as if to listen for a sign of my presence. “Used to have things everywhere around here. But she’s done sold most of them over the years. Now you can hear the echo of your voice.”

Through a thin flowered curtain that sectioned off the inside of the house, I saw a bamboo cot draped with a mosquito net. The net hadn’t been rolled up. I went through the curtain looking around. A gas stove sat against the yellow-painted wall next to a standalone narrow cabinet, its black-wood glass doors opaque with smoke and dust. On the wall were hung rattan baskets dyed plum red and peach yellow. A wooden table sat in the center of the room, and on the table I saw the persimmon-shaped caddy painted coal black.

The caddy made of fruitwood had a keyhole. I brought it to him. It was locked. I told him.

“Damn woman,” he said.

“She kept the key?”

“Damn she did.”

“She forgot?”

“That woman? Never. Never forgot anything.”

“Well, Uncle,” I chuckled. “What’s with the key anyway? Even if she’s left it for you, I mean.”

“I’ve got help.” He jerked his chin toward the entrance. “Door’s always open.”

“Your neighbors?”

“Them louts. Sit at the door every day. Gawking and giggling.”

“Ah. Kids. They help you, Uncle?”

“Some do. Some I have to bribe.”

I wondered what he bribed them with. “Where’s she now?”

“Out. Business.”

I shook the herb packet for him to hear. “What’s this medicine for, Uncle?”

“Stabilize the yin and yang in my body. That’s what your pa, eh, the herbalist said.”

“Your yin and yang?”

“This body,” he said, pressing his chin to his chest to make a point, “still has a piece of shrapnel in a lung. The metal junk messes up the balance of yin and yang. So I heard.”

“How’s that?”

“I puke blood whenever it gets bone chilly.”

“They didn’t take it out of your lung?”

“If they could, it wouldn’t be in my lung now, eh?”

I ignored his rude remark and looked around. The slatted side door opened into a common garden. Rain was falling steadily on the leaves of herbs and vegetables and the morning light glinted on the rain-wet leaves. I knelt on one knee, looked at the water pipe, then at him.  “You smoke often, Uncle?”

“Often as she lets me.” He grinned a crooked grin then yawned. I could smell his rancid breath. I tapped the caddy, thinking, until he cocked his head to listen to the noise. “I can make a pipe for you, Uncle,” I said. “But I’d have to pry the lock open.”

“I don’t give a damn about the lock. But I know what she’d do if the lock is busted.”

“What then?”

He let his head nod again, like he was following his thoughts. “Once I lay here in my piss and shit the whole damn day till she decided to clean me up. Otherwise the house would stink and that’d ruin her dinner.”

“What started it?”

“Like I told you. I only piss or shit when she lets me.”

“So she wanted to condition you, didn’t she?”

“You’re wrong, boy.” He frowned. “I mean, young man, she was talking business with this man in the alley. Talk. Talk. I yelled to her. Damn did I yell. Then everything burst out of me. When she came back in I doubt she bothered to look at me. Then when the smell couldn’t be ignored for heaven’s sake, she just left the house.”

Listening, I recalled her to my mind and still I couldn’t reconcile what I just heard with what I’d carried inside me ever since I saw her. He wiggled on his rump and the nylon sheet that covered the pallet squished. “If I can have me a drink,” he said. “Hell, if I can have me some rice liquor.”

“Where does she keep it, Uncle?”

“That woman won’t waste money on that kind of stuff.” He wrinkled his nose, snorting a few times to clear it. “We’d been drinking, me and some old friends. They brought a bottle with them and after they left I began having chills and shaking like a dog. She came in and saw the mess of cigarette butts and ashes and unwashed cups and started yelling at me. I cursed her, so she sat me up and screamed in my face, and it was then I threw up. I believe I just let it gush out all over her blouse.”

“You vomited on her? Why?”

“To spite her? I’m not sure. She emptied the bottle into the drain. That’s far worse than hearing her curse me or let me rot on my own.”

“I’ll get you some liquor the next time, Uncle.”

“I have no money on me. To pay you.”

“I know.”

“I’d appreciate it, young man. You drink?”

“A little.”

“That won’t hurt. You going into the army soon. So. I used to get high while we stayed for months in the jungles. Ever heard of dog roses?”

“They told me. Them wild roses that crave blood to bloom?”

“Hogwash.” He blew his nose with a loud snort. “But them wild roses have a subdued fragrance, not as strong as garden roses. And their leaves when crushed have a delicious smell. We cut up their fruits too and add them to the tobacco. Them rose hips give an added authentic kick when you’re high.”

His mouth hung open with an amused smile as he stared into space. Those eyes made me think of yellow marbles. Quietly I looked at his limbless torso, the wiry beard that covered half of his face, and a thought hit me: how would I carry on if I ever became like him? This man seemed to survive the way a creeper did, by latching on to living things nearby. He wanted to live.

 

I went back to Uncle Chung’s house a few days later. This time the herb packet I brought contained finely cut leaves of yellow jasmine. When the herbalist wrapped them up, I asked him what they were for. For hemorrhoids, he said. For external swelling and pain. But never take them orally, he said. It’s fatal. I asked if the wife knew about it and he nodded. She didn’t want the ointment, he said. She wanted the leaves and the seed pods. Much later when I was fighting in the South I would occasionally come upon this vine in the jungles. At first glance you could mistake it for honeysuckle. Then I found out that the vine—any part of it from its root to its leaves and flowers and fruits—was toxic if taken by the mouth. I also learned the words the Americans called it: heartbreak grass.

I bought half a liter of rice liquor in a bottle. Uncle Chung was lying on the pallet, sleeping on his side like a big baby. I woke him and helped him sit up. He kept squirming.

“Hemorrhoids bothering you, Uncle?” I asked him.

“Like hangnails,” he said. “Just a nuisance. You said you’ve got the spirits?”

“I bought half a liter.”

“Let me smell it.”

I opened the bottle and held it under his nose. He leaned forward to have a full whiff of it and nearly toppled. I held him up. He grunted, his face contorted into a painful scowl. The hemorrhoid must be bad enough, I thought.

“You want to lie down, Uncle?”

“What for? Wish I had arms to hug this bottle here. Eh?”

I found a cup and poured him some of the clear-colored spirit and brought the rim of the cup to his lips. He sniffed, then inhaled deeply, his nostrils flaring. He held the drink in his mouth and kept nodding. Then he thrust his head toward the cup, said, “Give me.” He made a loud sucking sound, lifting his chin in a great effort to imbibe the liquor. The spilled liquor dripped from his beard.

“A smoke, Uncle?”

“Got no key to that caddy.” He burped. “You know that.”

“I got you cigarettes. Here.”

As I lit and puffed on a cigarette for him, he sniffed like a mouse. “You’re a prince, young man,” he said, and his lips curled up into a wide grin. “If I die tonight, I won’t regret a damn bit.”

I plugged the cigarette between his lips and let him drag on it like he was out of oxygen. When the ash curled and broke, I caught it in my palm and went to the door and let the rain wash it from my hand.

“We need some sun.” I sat back down. “To air things out.”

“Rainy day like this, you just want to sit and sip liquor and cuddle up with a pipe. Eh?” He tilted his torso to one side and I could tell that he wanted to ease the pressure on his hemorrhoids.

“This stuff for your hemorrhoids,” I said as I jiggled the herb packet, “has it helped?”

“What?” His dead-fish eyes looked blindly at me.

I gave him another shot of rice liquor and he took a healthy sip from it. Then huffing he said, “Something like . . . opium. Might help.”

“Opium? You can’t afford it, Uncle.” I lit another cigarette and put it between his lips. “You said it helps? Against pain?”

“Kills pain. When I was all busted up by a mìn cóc, they gave me opium. Damn. It worked.”

“What’s mìn cóc?”

He described it. Leaping Frog mine. Gruesome destruction. The kind of mine that jumps up when triggered and explodes two, three feet above the ground. Severs your legs and worst of all maims your genitals. Bouncing Betty. That was the name I later learned from the Americans.

I asked him if he lost his limbs from a Bouncing Betty, and he said yes, nodding and snorting. Smoke from his cigarette didn’t bother him, his dead eyes open unblinkingly, as he asked me, “Which would you rather lose: both of your legs or your penis?” I couldn’t help chuckling and said that I would never ask myself such a question, for it was a warped sense of morbidity that should have no place in a sane mind. He chewed on the cigarette butt leisurely and said, “Soon you’ll ask yourself such when you start having phobia of losing your body parts.” I told him I never treated one part of my body more favorably than another. If it happened, I’d live with it. One older guy in the army said the same thing to me, years later when I was in the South, that your body parts are like your children and you don’t favor one over another. Now, out of curiosity, I asked if he still had his penis and he laughed, spitting out the cigarette, and the ash was scattered on the nylon sheet. I brushed off the ash and waited until he stopped cackling and put the cigarette back between his lips. He shook his head, so I took the cigarette out and he said, chortling, “Still with me, young man. My treasure is. So I don’t have to pee through a tube. And am still a man. That’s what it’s good for. Don’t ask me about my woman though. I don’t blame her.” I mused on his remark as he asked for another sip. Afterward he said there was this thing called “crotch cup,” which had gained popularity in the South among men in his unit and others. It started out when this guy custom-made a triangle cup-shaped piece that he cut out of an artillery shell, and through its three sides, he drilled holes to run three twines and looped them around his torso to hold the piece in place against his crotch. He became the butt of every joke told among fellow soldiers. Then when more and more men fell victim to Bouncing Betty mines, many having been cut below the waist, their genitals pulverized, blown and stuck to their faces in pieces of skin and hair, they grew so paranoid they started finding ways to protect their manhood—and their lineage. The crotch cup became their holy answer. As I tried to absorb the horror of  the war’s realness, twinged with the painful knowledge that I too would soon be a part of that reality, he told me he chose not to wear a crotch cup because it was unwieldy and uncomfortable. Then, snickering, he said some fellows in his unit at one point decided to take a break from wearing the crotch cups, and the next thing that hit them was Bouncing Betty mines. What he never could forget was the crotch pieces of the army trousers all shredded and glued to fragments of white bones, unrecognizable lumps of the genitals found on the ground, some still with skin, some with hair. Without sight now, he said, he imagined those scenes day and night. I listened and decided to take a sip of liquor. I wasn’t afraid, but the gloomy pictures he painted for me to see had affected my mood.

 

For more than a month I had not visited Uncle Chung and neither had I seen his wife coming to the herbal store for prescriptions. One late morning when the weather had cleared up, I went to his house. The door was closed but wasn’t locked.

Inside the house, dim and cool, there was a moistness in the air. It was tinged with a fermented sourness of liquor that had been spilled. On the pallet scattered with clumps of cooked rice, Uncle Chung was lying facedown, the seat of his cutoffs damp-looking. Just as I sat down on my heels, his voice came up, “That you, young man?”

“You awake, Uncle?”

“No. I never sleep,” he said with a deep-throated chuckle. “Just airing out my rump.”

“Wet your shorts?” I peered through the curtain. “Where is she?”

“Be back in the afternoon. She closed the door, didn’t she? Should have left it open for fresh air.”

“It smells in here, Uncle. Want me to open it?”

“Well, don’t chance it. She closed it for a reason.”

“What?”

“Bunch of them kids were coming here this morning. Some were new, I could tell. So she yelled at them, ‘You want to peep at him? Do you? How about pay him? That’s right. Pay him and I’ll let you ogle at him, pet him. Long as you like.’ They just broke off and ran.”

I eyed the stain on his buttocks. “She meant it, didn’t she?”

“It came out of her mouth. So.”

I thought of her. Just briefly. The pretty face. The pleasant voice. “Want to sit up, Uncle?”

He twisted his head toward my side. “My back. Can you scratch it?”

I pushed up his army shirt, paused and brushed off pellets of rice stuck to his back. A warm, sweaty smell rose from his body, and for one brief moment I stared at his back, its bare flesh speckled with black moles like someone had sprinkled raisins on it. His voice drifted sleepily, “She kept telling me . . . those black moles I was born with were flies . . . flies . . . crushed into my skin.”

As I scratched him, he squirmed. His stomach groaned. I wondered if he had eaten since the night before. “Get a towel in there . . .” he said. “Check the kettle. Might have some hot water in it. That’ll take the itch away.”

I found a dish towel hung between the rattan baskets. I reheated the water in the kettle and wet the towel and wrung it as steam wafted up. I saw a bowl with some cooked rice left in it, sitting on the table. A few cubes of fermented tofu lay on top of the rice. Next to the bowl was a glass with some water. But it wasn’t water when I sniffed it. Liquor. I took the bowl and the glass with me and came back out. The hot towel seemed to help him feel better against the itch after I had scrubbed his back until it turned raw red.

“That damn monkey meat,” he slurred.

“What monkey meat?”

“She brought back some monkey meat yesterday. I ate some.”

He tried to turn onto his back. With my help he rolled over. It struck me when I looked down at him. His left cheek had a cut and several scratches. Red, raw, they looked fresh. Since I last saw him he had lost much weight. I could tell from the hollowness in his cheeks and from the slackness given by his shirt. “Let me sit you up,” I said. He let me pull him up, grunting. An ammoniac smell hung about his face. I winced. “Your face, Uncle,” I said, “smells of piss.” His nostrils twitched. “Yeah. From my head to my butt, eh?” His beard, longer now, felt like a woolly wad when I wiped his face. “Woman’s piss,” he said and shook his head.

“What?”

“She pissed on me.” He grinned as if amused while I felt disgusted. “I had a seizure last night. That came after I ate some monkey meat. Good thing I didn’t die, ’cause I woke up and she was sitting on my face and watered me with her holy water. For heaven’s sake I felt all cold sober after that.”

I told him perhaps her quick thinking might have bailed him out of danger. He nodded. For the first time I noticed in his jet-black hair the gray hair had started showing through here and there. I could hear his stomach growl again. “I brought you leftovers—rice and liquor,” I said. He asked me to dump the leftover liquor into the rice. Obliging him, I stirred the concoction, the sickly yellow tofu cubes going round and round with the rice clumps, a tart smell of stale liquor and tofu hung about. I spoon-fed him. He slurped and swallowed. He didn’t even chew. I asked him how he could eat anything like this, and he spat out some rice and said, “There comes a time when you’d eat anything given you. In the South once we had no salt for weeks so we ate ash. Not a bad substitute.” He hiccupped. “Be adaptable, young man.”

“Where’d she get the monkey meat from?” I asked him.

“From a baby monkey, fallen off a tree and drowned in a flood. Well, she and this guy were up across the Viet-Sino border on opium runs. They got caught in a flood and had to eat bamboo rats.”

I recalled the man he mentioned coming to the alley and talking with her. “What if she gets caught by the border police?”

“I’d know when that day comes.”

He told me she had given him the black pellets of opium whenever he had a bout of pain—the hemorrhoids, the lungs. The pains would go away. Since then the seizures had come more than once. If she was home, she would give him liquor that seemed to blunt the fit and, sometimes with much liquor, he would fall asleep.

“I cursed her for giving me the monkey meat,” he said. “She yelled at me, ‘You’re a dunghill. A dunghill for me to risk my life just to earn some cash to keep all your perverted sicknesses at bay.’” He raised his brows, his eyeballs like still yellow marbles. “That woman has a sharp tongue. But she spoke the truth. Said, ‘Who’s going to make all your pains disappear? Doctors? Your crummy pension? That? That goes out the window in no time just to pay the helpers to clean up your filth and buy you liquor so your opium fits won’t kill you. Monkey meat, hanh? Last time you crashed, was it monkey meat? Or was it opium? I’m an expert now on how to kill your obscene pains when you convulse on the floor like a leech, your eyeballs roll into your head, your mouth foams like baking soda. And next time when you bang your head, find a sharp corner. Hanh?’”

It dawned on me about his facial cuts. “You banged your head? During a seizure?”

“Broke her cactus pot and got their spines all over my face.”

As I put the empty bowl away, the fermented sourness made my nose twitch. He cleared his throat, his sticky voice becoming raspy as he told me he had done his part around the house, and yet she never appreciated it. When it did not rain for days, he twice managed to crawl out to her vegetable patch and urinated on the spinach, the purslane, the fish mint. He could tell by their smells. And she could tell of what he had done sometimes by the sight of the cigarette butts lying among the patch. The fish mint leaves would smell repugnant when she chewed them, then she would spit them out and daub the paste on his forehead. He would curse, shake, to get rid of the slimy gob and she said, “You get what’s coming to you. It smells like your piss, doesn’t it?”  She loved her garden patch. Nights when it rained, the air moist and cool, he could hear raindrops pinging on the cement steps and the moistness in the air seeped through his skin. He liked the rain, for he knew rain would soak the soil in the vegetable patches. At first light the soupmint’s downy hair would spark red, the crab’s claw herb would glisten, the thyme, the basil would be gorged with moisture. He could tell that one of her pet plants, the yellow jasmine vine, was coming out in clusters. She’d watered it every morning from the time she brought home the seeds, allowing the pods to dry first before breaking them open, and nursed the seeds with much watering until one morning he could smell something fragrant and that was the first time it flowered. He might hear her cheerful voice, for a change, when she plucked them at dawn.

   

I didn’t visit Uncle Chung for a while until one morning I saw his wife coming into our herbal store. She was wearing a white blouse and a red scarf around her neck, and the red was redder than hibiscus. She asked for a cough prescription. The herbalist asked her if Uncle Chung was having a cold or flu and if he had a whooping cough. She smiled, said it was for a sore throat. I could hear someone coughing outside the store. A man was smoking a cigarette, standing on the sidewalk with his hands in his pants pockets. Lean, dark-skinned, he was about Uncle Chung’s age. His slicked-back hair was shiny with pomade. He glanced toward the store, coughed, and spat. When she met his gaze she smiled. She had that fresh smile that showed her white teeth. Even, glistening.

I thought of that smile when I went to see Uncle Chung afterward. He wasn’t on the pallet. Him sitting or lying on that pallet had been a fixture in my mind. That gave me pause. I went through the curtain and saw him crawling like a caterpillar toward a corner of the room where the bathing quarter stood behind accordian panels. He bumped a chair, stopped, wiggling his head as if to get his bearings. I called out to him.

“Young man?” he cocked his head back, his hair so long now it looked like a black mane.

“Why’re you in here?” I went to him.

“Water.”

“Water? Where?”

“Where she bathes.”

There were no pails, not even a cup, in there. Her black pantaloons were the only item hanging on a string from wall to wall. I could see water still dripping from the pantaloons’ legs. Before I said anything to him, he gave a dry chuckle. “That’s my water.” I pictured him worming his way to where he could catch the dripping water with his mouth.

It took a while before I could move him back out onto his own pallet. Though he said he hated water, he drank some from the kettle, which I poured directly into his mouth. He asked for a cigarette. I told him I was out of cigarettes and promised him when I got money I’d buy him a pack and some liquor. I brought the black caddy to the pallet.

“I’ll make you a pipe, Uncle,” I said, tapping the caddy.

“It’s locked. You know it.”

“I’m going to break the lock.” I thought of her, her smile to the man she had been with, and I could feel my resentment.

“Go ahead.” He grinned.

Surprised by his encouragement, I clucked my tongue as I twisted the blade of my pocketknife inside the keyhole until I felt it snap. “I saw her at the store,” I said to him casually, folding the pocketknife.

“She breezed out of here this morning and I swear I could smell perfume.” He tried to clear his throat, for his voice suddenly sounded strained. “Make the pipe. I need it.”

Inside the caddy a jackfruit leaf lay on top of the tobacco. The leaf was no longer fresh, the blade having gone a dark yellow. He listened to my movements and mumbled something about the leaf left in there to keep the tobacco fresh. Without it when you smoke, he said, the tobacco lacking moisture would burn dry in the throat. He asked me what she wore. I told him. Then remembering her red scarf I told him that too. “Damn,” he said. As I lit the pipe he brought his lips to the opening of the pipe, paused and said, “I remember her wearing that scarf, that red scarf, only once in her life. On the day we got married.” He took a heavy drag, the water in the pipe singing merrily, and then he tipped up his face and blew a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling. “Wish I had eyes to see that scarf on her this morning. Damn it. Was she with somebody?” I told him she was, adding that he must be her business partner. Uncle Chung grunted with a twisted grin at the words I used. I could sense his muted pain and at the same time my still simmering displeasure toward her. “But my woman. Oh my woman. Whenever she bathes in there, I still feel that urge just to caress her full calves. Know what they remind me of, young man? The wax gourds. Those fleshy ripened gourds to sink your teeth in.” He stopped snickering and drew a healthy drag, kept the smoke in his mouth as long as he could and his eyes became slits in his own bliss. I repacked fresh tobacco in the bowl, thinking wishfully of a rice liquor bottle, because I wanted to get drunk, very drunk, with him. I took one big drag with the fresh tobacco, my head buoyed, tingling, as he slurred his words, “Know something else, young man? In the South when they amputated my limbs they said, ‘Don’t cry now, Sarge.’ You know why? We got no anesthesia. So I had someone press her picture on my eyes and I imagined her in that red scarf and I sucked in the pain until her picture shrank with the pain and I passed out.” He nodded his head up and down like on a spring, said he understood her and even felt grateful to her still being with him. Chuckling, he told me the night before a female cat was yowling in heat as it wandered off the garden and into their house and his wife left her cot to come out, turned on the light and saw the cat push its bottom against his stumped leg, rubbing and purring, and his wife said, “Look at it, oh will you look at it,” and he said, “She’s horny. Aren’t women like that when the moon is full?” and she just howled, “How can I sleep with its obscene squealing? Now, now will you look at its obscene way of showing itself?” He said, “How obscene?” She told him that the cat was lying down, twitching its tail and then flinging it to the side and there it was: the pink slit of its genitalia, pink and swollen. Before going back to her cot, she said she was going to stuff the cat’s mouth with lá ngón, the yellow jasmine leaves, if it didn’t stop yowling. He made a snorting sound as he laughed, said it took a long time before things got quieted down, the cat now gone, but the sound of her cot creaking beyond the curtain kept him awake into the night.

Now he blew the smoke out of the corner of his mouth and a light breeze coming through the front door carried the smoke toward the back door. I saw a pot on the doorsill, a tall wooden stake rising from its bottom, and around the stake twined the yellow jasmine vine. Uncle Chung’s wife’s pet plant. I could tell by its pretty yellow flowers.

  The next morning a boy from Uncle Chung’s alley ran into our store and asked the herbalist to come quickly to Uncle Chung’s house. The herbalist was like a doctor in our district, where western medicine and its physicians weren’t trustworthy. I went with him, the boy running ahead of us before we could ask him. Inside the house I saw Uncle Chung lying facedown by the back door where the pot of yellow jasmine sat. It took me but one look to see that he had plucked nearly all the fresh leaves of the vine and some of them were in his mouth still and some of them lay scattered over the doorsill. White foam coated his mouth and his head full of long black hair lolled to one side, and in the morning light I could see the gash and the scratches on his cheek.

I knelt down, looking at his eyes, still open like yellow marbles. I ran my hand over them, and the eyes stayed open. Like dolls’ eyes.

 

A year later I left the North to go South to fight the Americans.

Many of my friends had gone South. Nobody had heard anything from them since. I asked people why none of them ever came back, and they shushed me. Most of them my age tattooed their arms with four words, “Born North Die South.” Like it would boost their morale. Most of them died—true to their tattoos—and there was no news sent home. You can’t win the war with damaged morale suffered by the people at home. The messengers of death weren’t telegrams, but the returning wounded who eventually reached the unfortunate families with the tragic news.

The first day on the way South on the Hồ Chí Minh Trail I saw camouflaged trucks heading North. It was raining. Rain fell on our nylon raincoats, fell on the open beds of the trucks. We stopped, exchanged greeting words. I saw human bodies, alive and packed under the cover in mottled shades of green and brown. The wounded. Some had no legs. Some burned by napalm so severely they looked leperous. Rain dripped on their limbless bodies as they slept. After the trucks came the stretchers. Sticks, bamboo slapped together. Lying on them were the blind. Some had no faces. We couldn’t greet them. They couldn’t see us. They all moved past us, huffing and puffing. Rain-smeared sallow faces. Malaria-wrecked skin. They were all bones. So they headed home. Up North. I looked at them. I wasn’t afraid. Just queasy. We stood off the muddy trail, letting them pass.

I thought of heartbreak grass. One day, I thought, someone going South on this trail would look at me heading North. I might not then have a face. Or limbs.

The thought was like a thief hiding itself in my head to steal away slivers of joy once lived. I bowed my head. Inside I cried and thought of all the mothers whose lives ebb and flow with hopes that their sons would someday be found, what’s left of them, so they can hold them again, with the limbs intact, like they did on the day their sons were born.

ORBITAL DEBRIS

I

 

Something about the boy was strange. Not just the way he looked—the sallow skin, the tenebrous owl eyes, the black hair that slumped across his bulbous forehead—but how he moved as he poked about the field behind their neighborhood, his gait brittle, the stick he gripped in his palsied hand twitching like a dowsing rod. Every morning this summer, Addie watched the boy wander in the knee-high grass of the field while she sipped coffee on her rear patio, designed in the New Orleans Courtyard style she’d chosen from the builder’s options when she and Hal bought the place.

It had sounded so delicious then—a French-inspired hideaway to soothe the soul under the wide expanse of stars, your own secret garden. But the market crashed and the money and buyers dried up before the remaining phases of the residential development could be implemented. More than a few of the faux-Craftsman homes were empty—some never purchased, others foreclosed. The cleared field behind Addie’s home, which was intended to boast the pool, community center, and playground, had gone to seed, as Hal used to say, fond of using his farmer’s colloquialisms, although as a concession to her the closest he’d come to farming in the ten years prior to Addie putting him in the ground had been to thumb morosely through Progressive Farmer at the kitchen table, and God forgive her, Addie was grateful for that.

The boy was there now, in the field, the dark gloom of clouds gathering in the east hulking over his form like a reatomizing superpower villain, the kind of unsettling illustration found in the comic books Addie remembered schoolmates wedging in their textbooks so many decades ago. The grass writhed around the boy’s branch-thin thighs, the storm coming in fast as they tended to do every afternoon, the year’s El Niño slamming their corner of Alabama with record levels of rain.

But the boy did not seem to notice the threat above him. He plucked through the field, unsteady on his feet, poking his stick at this and that. Occasionally, he would squat to study the ground, and in those moments, he was completely consumed by the roil of grass: it was as if he’d vanished.

Addie often wondered if the boy’s mother knew how her son, who looked to be no more than twelve or so, passed the day. Addie had seen the woman only at a distance, hauling her trash bin down the driveway or  lingering by the mailboxes staked at the end of every quaintly named street—Cottage Lane, Dogwood Trace, Magnolia Pass—picking through her mail. If the boy’s mother had a husband, Addie had never laid eyes on him. Given the boy’s sullen posture, his brooding stare when he caught Addie observing him, she suspected that the father was dead or just gone. What else but that kind of pounding sorrow would allow a mother to give her boy to a field gone wild, would permit a mother the ignorance of not knowing that at this very moment that boy stood alone under the glare of a fierce storm with no intentions of escaping it?

The rabbits were starting to stir, and they leapt en masse past Addie’s patio. The rabbits were another silly idea from the builder, a queer bucolic touch for a scab of houses wedged between a Walmart and a dilapidated mall. With few natural predators other than the restless housecats who escaped their foyers on occasion, the rabbits did what rabbits do: multiplied. Their pebbly shit studded the sidewalks; it was impossible to take a stroll without soiling one’s shoes. Mounds of rabbit shivered on too-green lawns, watching unblinkingly. Hal, who had been unable to parse the purpose of decorative rodents, once struck one across the head with a potting shovel for habitually shitting on their patio. Addie had watched from the kitchen window; the rabbit did not even think of moving when Hal raised the shovel, could not seem to comprehend that the world might be bent toward necessary violence.

It wasn’t right, Addie thought, to breed the wild out of the wild capriciously. But even now the tremor-eyed rabbits knew what was coming. They stormed the lawn, hopping into bushes, under the latticework of porches. Addie stood, her knees protesting the abrupt movement. “Get out of that field!” she yelled at the boy, the volume of her voice swelling against her cheeks. “You’re going to get yourself killed.” She waved her hands, beckoning him to her patio.

He must have heard her. His head pitched up. His ears cocked. He stared straight at her, his big eyes moons. The black was on him now, the sky preparing to cleave, lightning severing the clouds. The boy hesitated, gripped his stick as if he intended to ignore her, jabbed at something at his feet. And then the sky ruptured, the winds tearing Addie’s coffee cup right off the table, her newspaper scudding to the ground, the brightly colored pages levitating around her calves. A finger of light reached out toward the boy, a perfect spear of lightning, and like a shock cord, it retracted just before it touched him, lassoing back up into the clouds.

Addie had never seen him move quickly before, not like the other kids who played basketball in the alley or scootered around on their wheeled contraptions. No, the boy generally maneuvered like an octogenarian, his legs buckling beneath him, the joints of his body bending at bizarre angles, a little, geriatric-looking Pinocchio.

But the boy was running toward her. Fast. The wind whipped his longish hair into a ducktail; his wet T-shirt stuck to his body like a caul. Even from a distance, Addie could see the boy’s ribs beneath the fabric, each slash of bone. Then he was standing not three feet away, waiting hesitantly at the patio step, just outside the protection of the awning. His thin chest heaved. The veins of his neck jerked. His owl eyes ballooned. He seemed slightly inhuman, some creature the storm had conjured. A horrible thought struck Addie: one day this boy will be a man, his ugly body hovering over some woman Addie could not help but see as unfortunate. And that unwelcomed image—the grotesque angles of his matured face, the eyes like small, raging animals caged in his sockets—shivered her spine; the truth of it, that she’d thought it at all.

 

II

 

When Vivek got home from the old lady’s house, his own home was silent; it smelled of rain and sandalwood. Barely past four, the house was pitch black, the drapes drawn against the soupy light. He found his mother in the living room that hinged the kitchen. She still wore her scrubs, bright teal and freckled with kicking bears in top hats. A fashion magazine draped her lap, unopened. Her profile—his profile—cut a dark, shadowy void. Her thumb and middle finger noosed the stem of a half-full wineglass.

She stared at the curtained window, the last breath of the storm pelting its panes. Vivek knew she hated it, the rain, the constant moistness, the promiscuous green growth of the landscape, the way everything seemed to ooze and seep, but for some reason, she refused to leave, refused to return to southern California where she’d grown up, where she met Vivek’s father, where they lived pre-children—if the family photo albums told any truth—a happy life before his father uprooted her for a job running the regional hospital where Vivek’s mother now worked as a nurse.

Vivek opened the window curtain to allow in what little light the day offered, then eased onto the sofa beside his mother, his thigh almost resting against her own. She blinked, her lashes, as long as spider legs, pinching together then fanning open. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were untouched by the gray that shot through her hair, as if they belonged to an earlier version of herself.

“I lost a patient,” she said.

“I’m sorry.” Vivek thought to hold his mother’s hand, but even as young as he was, he understood that the gesture would be too jarring in its strangeness, what little language of touch they’d known lost to them since his father’s death the year before. They sat together for a moment, both staring out the window at the neat line of spindly, young oaks bordering the sidewalk in front of their house, which they moved into after his father died, his mother in search of a sterile newness, a blank slate.

“A girl,” his mother continued. “She was talking—about some TV show with dancing hippos—and then she wasn’t. She closed her eyes, and that was it.” His mother turned to him when she said this, her face so vulnerable he could barely look at her without feeling the familiar rage punch from his gut to his throat.

“Rice and steamed vegetables okay for dinner?” Vivek asked, unfolding off the couch.

“Sounds lovely,” his mother said, although he knew she would not eat more than a child-sized bite or two. And then, after she thought he was asleep, she’d sip wine in the dark silence. He could not understand it, his mother’s choice to work with terminal children, other than she found comfort in knowing with certainty the outcome of things. There’d been hope for his father, torturous hope for months, and still the end had been like all endings. There’d been none for the older brother Vivek never met, the teenager who died upon impact on an unlit country road, a case of empty beer cans scattered around his body in a loose constellation, the car, a graduation gift, accordioned against a tree, his girlfriend slung over a branch of the same tree, her blonde hair draping like Spanish moss. Or at least, this was what Vivek saw when he tried to imagine the scenario, which he did often enough to scare himself.

No, there had been no hope for Anaadi. Not until Vivek, a consolation baby—no one made a secret about his purpose—entered the world on the first anniversary of Anaadi’s death sixteen years ago. He was reborn, their usually unreligious mother insisted on the rare occasions she drunkenly collided with her living son in the small hours of the night, into Vivek’s own body, a frail and contorted vessel after a botched forceps delivery. If true, other than being a stupid teenager, what horrific thing had Anaadi done, Vivek often wondered, for Yama to punish him with such a body in his new life?

“What’s that?” His mother pointed at the metal detector he’d propped against the coat closet. It looked like a weed whacker.

“An old lady two streets over gave it to me. I ran into her house for a minute when the rain started.”

“Why would a stranger just give you that?”

Vivek shrugged. “She said she didn’t need it anymore. Said she didn’t want things to clutter up her house.”

His mother considered this, studying the contraption suspiciously. “Be careful,” she finally cautioned. “No one gives away things without an expectation of something in return.”

Vivek clamped the rice steamer closed. He’d become the lone cook in the house after his father died from pancreatic cancer, and although he had discovered no secret culinary talent, he liked the ritual of preparing food, felt a certain superiority over the other boys at school, boys who were obsessed with video games and sports and skateboards and flippable bangs. He’d always been different from them, but this distinction seemed noble, unrelated to his uncooperative limbs, which would never have allowed sports and skateboarding even if he had the interest. He did not.

“What would an old lady want from me?” Vivek asked, but even as he said it, he knew that in general his mother was right. No one had ever given him a thing without an expectation of something in return. An unexpected gift of a Snickers at school from one of the shaggy-bang boys had eventually cost him his trig homework, an unwanted kiss on the cheek from one of the skankier girls a peek at his physics exam. Even the sad gift of his body required that he share it with Anaadi when his mother so desired.

The old lady’s house had looked as if she was just moving in or about to move out. Packed boxes towered in the dining room. A widescreen TV rested on the floor. The only visible furniture in use was a table in the kitchen with a few chairs ringing it and a small couch in the living room facing a blank wall where the TV would have been in a normal person’s house.

He’d paused upon entering her home, eyeing the boxes, the bare dining room to the right.

“You moving?” he’d asked, his voice sounding strange in the naked room.

“Sooner or later.”

“If you haven’t moved yet, where’s the rest of your stuff?”

The woman shrugged, said, “I didn’t need it anymore. Probably never did.”

After she ushered Vivek into the kitchen, she fetched a towel and wrapped it around his shoulders, seating him at the table. She poured him some lemonade from a carton she pulled from the side of the refrigerator, then sat across from him, her scrawny hands fisted under her chin. She was tiny and birdlike, her blotched skin loosening at the chin, her nose so long the fleshy tip almost touched her top lip. She stared at him for a minute, runny green eyes narrowed. “I’m Miss Addie,” she said. Her accent, a muddied, old-fashioned drawl, was so thick it would have required subtitles if she were on one of those redneck reality shows.

“I’m not good with kids,” she said. “Never had any of my own.” Then she stood and limped over to a utility closet and retrieved the metal detector, shoving it toward him.

“This was my husband’s. He’d intended to hunt for Civil War nonsense—bullet casings and belt buckles and whatnot—but didn’t get around to using it. Maybe it will help you find what you are looking for in that field.”

“Maybe,” Vivek said uncertainly, but he could not resist reaching for the gift.

She cocked her head, her nostrils shuddering. “What are you looking for, anyway?”

This was what Vivek was searching for this summer: his brother’s class ring, the school mascot, a cartoonish tiger, prowling up the side, the center stone an oversized ruby. One lazy, early June morning it had occurred to Vivek that if what he owned belonged to Anaadi, then in theory, what Anaadi once owned should belong to him. So Vivek swiped the ring from his mother’s jewelry box, intending to keep it for just a day. At first, he slipped his hand into his pocket every few minutes; the ring felt hot to his touch, like a tiny organ pulsing heat. And then, he became distracted by the day’s project, a kite he designed and built himself, which he attempted to fly for hours in the grassy field behind his neighborhood, a childish pursuit he suspected would invoke a barrage of cruel taunts from his classmates if anyone saw him. But that was not a problem, because outside of school, Vivek never saw anyone except his mother. By the time he remembered to shove his hand into his pocket to check for the ring, he found nothing but a wad of kite string.

What he told the old woman, a lie inspired by a television program he’d watched by himself in the darkest hours of the night after waking from another disturbing dream: “Space junk. Orbital debris rocketing around the asteroid belt. Sometimes it breaks through the atmosphere. Bits of rockets and satellites.”

“Good Lord,” Miss Addie had said. “There’s junk in space, too?”

Orbital debris? his brother seemed to say now from one of the photo frames that rested on Vivek’s dresser, his sultry eyes those of a Bollywood star. Their mother had rewritten Anaadi’s modest achievements into epic feats since his death, but his looks required no exaggeration. He was the kind of handsome that made Vivek study his feet when it passed him in the school halls, overwhelming in its intensity, like staring directly into the sun.

Poor Vivek, Anaadi whispered sadly from his photo, but Vivek caught his brother’s faint snigger, and Vivek suspected, not for the first time, that his brother had been a bit of an asshole when he’d felt like it. He actually liked that about him. Boys who looked like Vivek—bug-eyed and bent-backed and perpetually preadolescent—were not permitted the luxury of assholeishness.

The top of the desk served as a shrine of sorts: pictures of Anaadi from diapers to graduation gown; a sterling silver rattle with Anaadi’s full name and date of birth engraved on the handle (there was no such rattle for Vivek); seashells Anaadi had collected from sands of the Gulf on a family vacation as a toddler. And, hidden beneath a photo of ten-year-old Anaadi in a Little League Baseball uniform, a picture of the blonde girl Anaadi had loved, the girl who’d been with him at the end. In the snapshot, she sits on the edge of a bed in purple-polka-dotted panties, her long hair tousled on her shoulders, her knees pulled to her chest and wedged inside an oversized T-shirt. She’s squinting hard at the photographer from under heavily made-up eyelids, her extended hand languidly shooting a bird, Anaadi’s class ring glaring from her middle finger like an angry, bloodshot eye. The look and the gesture seem somehow intimate, an invitation. Vivek had found several photos of the girl wedged inside his brother’s copy of The Call of the Wild, but he preferred this one the most. The edges showed the wear from his brother’s hands, and it made Vivek feel close to Anaadi—mysterious, fabulous, wonderboy Anaadi—to hold his girl in Vivek’s own.

Lila Grayson. That was the name scrawled on the back of the photo. Her last name was Williams now. He’d looked her up on Facebook, and it took a few minutes from there to figure out her current address one town over. He’d marveled at the image of her profile photo, how the tired woman in that picture could also be the glossy-skinned kid who’d once known his brother. Vivek had done the math; she would be well over thirty, almost double the age of the girl tucked into his dead brother’s book.

Last week he had taken his father’s car—a silver, vintage Mercedes his mother was saving for Vivek, though his sixteenth birthday had passed with no mention of when he might get his license—and driven to the adjacent town where Lila Williams now lived, circling the pocked roads for her address. The town was a string of doublewides and boarded storefronts, and after an hour of orbiting the same trash-strewn lawns filled with lanky, mud-kneed kids or knots of young men in low-slung pants with cigarettes pinched between their thumbs and forefingers, Vivek finally found Lila’s place—a small tract house with a patchwork of red clay and dead grass for a front yard. A pack of young children—all boys—ran wild. He parked the car next to the mailbox and watched, waiting, he supposed, for Lila to emerge through the dented front door, wondering how her life might have been different if Anaadi had not died. He liked to think that Anaadi’s death changed the course of Lila’s life. He liked to think that he was not alone. He waited until he could wait no longer, until his mother’s shift ended at work and she would soon be home to discover the missing car, and still, Lila never emerged once to check on her children, never even pulled back a drape.

Vivek caught his mother studying him often enough, her expression a mixture of wistfulness and mild distaste, to know she recognized nothing of her first son in her second, that she never once truly believed any remnant of Anaadi survived in Vivek. But at night, when he finally found sleep, Vivek sometimes saw Lila, the girl as his brother had loved her, and the details of her face—the mole that rode the rim of her upper lip, the freckles scattered across her slightly crooked nose—were so finely etched, the pressure of her lips on his so palpable, that when he first woke, her image still hovering in his mind’s eye, he half believed what he had witnessed was more memory than dream, that Anaadi’s soul, however briefly, burned within him.

      

III

 

Jacob felt like a tool, wobbling down the street on his daughter’s lavender-colored bike, his soaked clothes clinging to his skin, the ragged plastic basket that drooped from the handlebars funneling a spout of water straight at his left cheek. The plan had been to take the Camry, but when he finally worked up the nerve to pull out of his driveway a few hours before dawn, the car refused to start. It took him two hours to cover the ten miles in the rain, which pushed against him like an invisible hand.

He couldn’t remember the exact address of the old lady’s house. It had been pouring when he loaded her donations onto the Goodwill truck a couple of weeks ago—another part-time job that had not paid enough to cover even the electric bill—her house sheathed in rain. He’d been pedaling awhile now, circling the neighborhood, the large stucco homes so similar in structure and color, particularly in the night, that he worried he would never recognize the one where the bird-faced woman lived. The houses were monstrous in size—several so big they required two heating and air units. Some were silent as tombs, the owners probably off at their vacation homes to escape the summer heat. Others had yards littered with trampolines and miniature battery-operated Jeeps, porches crammed with SUV-sized strollers and bike trailers. What kind of work did these people do, Jacob wondered, to own so much stuff?

By the time the rain stopped and the sun began to emerge—a piss-colored smudge in the heavy-lidded horizon—he almost decided to cut his losses. And then he saw the planters on the front porch, two massive, ceramic bowls painted with navy blue fleurs-de-lis. He knew that the planters were plantless, filled only with dry, caked dirt, because when the old lady wasn’t watching, he’d put out his break smoke in one, embarrassed by the intense pleasure of the juvenile act. Jacob dropped the bike behind a row of drooping azaleas next to the house and crouched in the shadows of the two-story Craftsman, bile seeping up his throat.

Since he’d lost his job teaching phys ed at the elementary school during the last round of cuts, in addition to taking any job that came his way, he’d cancelled the landline and cable, pawned the TVs, the Xbox, the laptop, the crappy Walmart pay-as-you-go smartphone, listed his good tools on Craigslist, even sold his blood plasma. Still, there was not enough, and Sharla had been very clear in her terms the past weekend: Don’t come inside this house without rent money. He’d spent the last four nights sleeping in the car, waking at dawn to drive to the empty lot next to the old Piggly Wiggly, where he stood around with the other day laborers in hopes that some douche in an oversized, souped-up truck would choose him for the shit job du jour, which never happened. The younger guys and the Mexicans got picked first, more bang for the buck. Jacob felt like an aging hooker, and when he said as much to Sharla that first night when she came out to the car to torture him with another stack of bills, she snorted, said, “When a four-hundred-pound dude with titties bigger than mine sticks his hand down your G-string, we’ll talk.” Before they met, Sharla had stripped for a few years at a pretty tame tops-off-only joint, but the way she worked herself up about it, you’d think she’d been exploited by a ring of Russian sex traffickers.

Last night he was awakened in the back seat of the Camry by a persistent drip, the moonroof’s seal completely undone by age and sun exposure. He sat there for a long time, stripped to his boxers, the stringy heat of the old car unbearable. It was like sitting in a cow’s mouth. And then he understood—what he needed to do, the only thing he could do.

He chose the old woman because she had seemed so delighted to get rid of her things. She practically hummed when he hauled off a nice set of leather couches and a recliner to the Goodwill truck, spreading her arms wide in the emptied living room as if she were about to break out into a jig. Frankly, Jacob found her joy offensive to people like himself, people who were too panicked about not being able to put gas in the tank and food on their table to kick up their heels when the repo man came to haul their shit off. What was the difference, he reasoned, if he cut out the middle man and took her things himself? She wanted to donate to the poor, and God knows, Jacob was not much, but he was poor.

But standing here now, his face pressed to the old lady’s window, he wasn’t so sure. He’d never stolen anything, unless he counted beer from the stash his father used to hide in his ancient johnboat, and weed from friends in high school, a finder’s-fee pinch from a baggie here and there. Or, if he wanted to get philosophical about it—and Jacob did not—Sharla’s youth, which, according to her latest rant, had been squandered wiping the asses of his two kids.

He peeked inside the house. The old lady was nowhere to be seen, and he hoped that if she was home she was still asleep. A lady that ancient would surely sleep like the dead. He did not allow himself to consider what he might do if she were awake. Jacob spotted a wall of boxes and a large flat-screen TV perched in the foyer, a new collection of things apparently intended for donation. The TV alone would pull in at least four hundred on Craigslist. Then the obvious hit him: How was he going to carry a 55-inch TV on a bike? The panic—the cold clamping of his heart—nearly knocked him out. He pressed his cheek, raw from the hard rain, against the cool of the stucco.

Maybe, he considered, not all was lost. There could be some small stuff, jewelry or collectibles, in those boxes, things he could carry in the bike basket. He surprised himself by laughing at the thought of a man barreling down a county highway balancing a big-screen TV on his handlebars, the tone of his laugh harsh, and he wondered when his own voice began to sound like that of a stranger’s.

He would be less likely to be seen breaking in at the back of the house, which faced an open field, so he eased around the side, hugging the house as he moved, his wet, sneakered feet tripping over a paver brick, a ceramic butterfly, a garden hose, and then something soft, malleable.

Jacob looked down to find the furry belly of a small creature wedged under his heel; his foot jacked up reflexively, his shoe hovering over the animal in midair like a threat. The thing looked to be a rabbit, its eyes glassy and still. It stared straight through him, its narrow rodent mouth agape, the sharp teeth crooked and yellowed. Then it seemed to release a moan, a long, low keening.

Jacob jumped, nearly falling into the hedges, and by the time he steadied himself, he found himself at the back of the house, gripping a poorly molded wrought-iron fence that surrounded a brick patio, a wide field of grass in the distance, black clouds pressing down the horizon like a giant fist. And the moaning—it grew louder, closer, even though the dead or dying rabbit was now a good ten feet away.

Then he saw it, the woman’s body sprawled across the brick patio, a water-logged newspaper a few inches from an outstretched hand. He stared at her for at least a minute before he fully recognized her as human, as the source of the terrible sound. It was the old lady, her clothes matted to her skeletal frame, her hair a thin, see-through cap, her mouth fish-lipping the air.

At her feet, French doors winged open to the kitchen. The small dinette table that took up most of the eat-in kitchen was covered in what looked like stacks of photo albums and old papers, and next to those, a hand-carved wooden box, the kind of box in which people keep precious things. Jacob’s heart lurched instinctively at his good luck, and this response frightened him, because it took only the space of a breath to understand that he would not call 911, that in the end he would step over the woman’s body to enter her home, that he would avoid looking at the yellowed black-and-white photos spread on the table of the old lady when she wasn’t so old—when the thinness of her cheeks appeared pixie-ish and coquettish rather than birdlike, when the man he assumed was her husband still found her lovely enough to bury his broad face in the hollow of her neck—and he would reach for that box instead of the phone that hung from the wall. And later, back at his house, sitting, finally, at his own kitchen table across from his wife and kids, there would be much doubt and regret and sorrow. But in that exact moment—the moment he flipped the lid of the wooden box open to reveal a string of opaque pearls, a diamond engagement ring, and a man’s gold pocket watch—he felt only as if he’d been spared.

 

IV

 

The kids were like fucking animals. Animals. Not precocious. Not curious. Not energetic. Feral animals. Lila had tried to explain this to Trey, that the way things were going she might be dead by the end of the summer, and not metaphorically devoid of life, but straight up dead dead. She’d begged him to hire her some help, even a neighborhood girl for a few hours a week, but he’d laughed it off like silly nonsense, told her money was too tight, that she just needed to put her feet up now and again, take a nap if she could squeeze one in. If Lila closed her eyes long enough for a nap, she had no doubt that she’d wake to complete destruction. Tsunami-style devastation.

Trey still looked good in boxers, stayed sober most nights, and worked hard at his machinist job, but Lila couldn’t find anything else nice to say about her husband. She knew as much when she married him. What kind of guy calls a box of donuts and a 12-pack of Natural Light on a rusted-out tailgate a first date? But she’d been assaulted by a restless anger for a long time after the car accident, a rage that stemmed, in part, from the way the tragedy had defined her, her transition into womanhood, and her inability to say as much without the risk of sounding like a heartless bitch had only exacerbated her righteous self-destruction. She’d been overwhelmed by a want to punish—her friends, her parents, the world, herself. Trey, a good ol’ boy with a pickup truck and a gun rack and tepid blue-collar aspirations had seemed a fine way to do just that, and when he put his hand on the small of her back as she worked her way through the crowded redneck bar she frequented when home from college specifically because her father had asked her not to, she whipped around to face him, placing her mouth over his before he could introduce himself.

She was a year shy of her bachelor’s degree with no employment in sight when she discovered, a few weeks before the end of summer break, that Trey had knocked her up. Being jobless and pregnant and married, even to Trey, seemed a wiser option than being just jobless and pregnant. And if there had been other options, she had been too tired to consider them. Then Peter arrived—a squally mass of flesh—and Lila thought the baby would cement the deal, make her feel like a real wife and mother, fill her days with playdates and onesie shopping and misty baths where she would coo at the baby like serene-faced mothers on Johnson & Johnson commercials. None of that happened. She just grew weary and bored, her anger, at least, dulled by exhaustion. And then the others started coming, no matter how much birth control she pumped into her arm or gut, one boy after another, like goddamn rabbits, the youngest almost two.

Their junk multiplied, too. The house was littered with sippy cups and torn books and ride-ons and little honking cars and tooting trains. The yard was even worse: a disemboweled trampoline, a rusted-out swing set, dozens of sun-faded push toys and tire-deflated trikes. Sometimes Lila thought she’d be buried alive, just slowly sink into the mire of crap, and to tell the truth, she’d be grateful for the escape.

Wine, she recently discovered, helped tremendously. She wished she’d thought of it years ago. Trey didn’t seem to notice the drinking, and she was careful to buy cheap wine at Costco so that he wouldn’t notice the expense either. Over the last few weeks, she’d started a little earlier each day, just testing the waters. Today she didn’t even pour a bowl of Cheerios and make a show of taking a few bites; instead, she filled her coffee cup with merlot, then kept refilling it, the shrillness of the children’s squeals as they ate and dressed blessedly muted.

The rain had been ruthless all summer, and anytime the sky cleared Lila shoved the kids out the door and locked it behind them. They were out in the rain-soaked yard now, all five of them, terrorizing a neighborhood cat they’d treed. Lila knew she should stop them, but she also knew that there was no stopping them, and so she sipped her wine and watched for a moment as Peter, almost twelve now and hell-bent on turning mean, pegged the tabby with pebbles, his little brothers scrounging the ground for more ammo. Even the baby was scratching in the mud on his hands and knees, yelping in delight each time the cat screeched. She thought to yell at them to leave the cat alone, but instead she closed the drapes.

Lila settled deeper into the couch, the mug of wine resting on her belly, her free hand picking at the frayed threads of the floral couch. When she noticed a patch of dried food—most likely yogurt from the morning’s breakfast—she didn’t even think of rising to get a washcloth, and she didn’t feel guilty for not thinking of doing so either. She just shut her eyes, welcoming the stillness.

Lately, when Lila stole moments like this, her body almost floating with the buzz of wine, her mind racing in images—the slope of her own mother’s cheek from years ago, the white, downy hairs gathering the sunlight as she drove Lila to grade school; her friends from college sweating out their beer at a frat band-party, their long, wet hair lacerating their bony shoulders; Anaadi the night he died, sitting cross-legged in front of a bonfire they’d built, etching a cartoonish stick figure of her into the red dirt—she was certain that there must be many Lilas, all living their separate lives at once. Sometimes, she liked to think that if she focused hard enough she could find her way back to one of those other Lilas, that she could hit the reset button, but she suspected it wouldn’t matter much, that, eventually, she would find herself right back here on this very couch.

When she heard the knock on the door, she figured it was one of the kids, forever wanting something, and she waited a long moment before rising, savoring the velvety darkness of her eyelids. She stood unsteadily, holding her mug of wine to her chest as she moved across the cluttered room so the wine would slosh onto her old T-shirt instead of the carpet. She threw open the door, ready to respond to whatever request with an It’s-time-you-learn-to-do-it-yourself, and found herself staring at an Indian boy with bulging eyes and a slab of greasy hair paneled across his forehead. He stood too close to the door, almost inside the door frame. He smelled of dirt and grass. She almost slammed the door shut, but her kids were out there in the yard, and what kind of mother would she be if she considered only her own safety?

So instead she said, as tersely as she could, “What do you want?”

The boy blinked once, twice. “I don’t know.” He pistoned his wadded hands deep into his pockets. Stared at her shyly.

“You selling something?” Lila offered. She peered around him, as if he were hiding a clipboard or a box of candy bars. Behind him, her own boys had stilled. Only the baby crawled in crazy loops around the base of the tree, the cat still clutching to the same branch. Lila’s sons watched her and the stranger with naked curiosity.

“When you didn’t answer the door, I was just going to leave it on the step.” The boy gestured with his chin toward the ground, and Lila spotted a small object close to the toe of his boat-sized old-man shoes. It took a few moments for it to register that it was a ring, its wide band a cheap, cloudy gold. She couldn’t tell if the boy was making some kind of love offering or trying to sell her his mother’s jewelry to buy meth from one of the cook houses on their street. Either way, she wasn’t interested, and was about to tell the boy so in no uncertain terms when he unclenched a hand from his pocket and, without hesitation, touched his hot fingertips   to her face.

“You look older than yourself,” the boy said, like some retard or oracle. Then he jerked his hand away and turned to hobble down the grass-cracked walkway toward an old Mercedes, the bend of his hooked back that of an elderly man. Lila studied the ring at her feet, turning it with one big toe. It was gaudy and poorly made, the red gem only dull glass, the band so thin it razored against the skin of her feet. The sight of it made her angry. More junk. She swept it with her heel into the overgrown shrub for the kids to scavenge later.

 

V

 

First it was Addie’s heart—clogged arteries, an irregular rhythm. Then her lungs—reduced capacity—an afterthought of thirty years of smoking, a habit she regretted abandoning once she realized she would be punished for it anyway. After her knees went and her doctor doled out the assisted-living speech, Addie began giving away her things in preparation for the inevitable move: the heirloom china her mother gifted her when she married Hal; her formal dining room furniture, with the silk-backed chairs she painstakingly protected from Hal’s soiled hands for more than thirty years; and as soon as the Goodwill truck showed up again, everything else she could spare, including the TVs, with their incessant chants of economic doom and endless wars.

She had no children to whom she could farm out her things. There’d been a baby the third year of her marriage, a misshapen boy who never pinked up. The others died within her, a string of miscarriages throughout her fertile years, until, mercifully, her reproductive organs could not even ignite those weak flames. If Hal blamed her for their inability to have children, he never let on—a mysterious softness for a man who railed at her for allowing the chicken feed to mold or the morning paper to get wet—and with each loss, he brought her flowers, beautiful daffodils he left in a mason jar on the kitchen table. After the initial thrill of performing wife wore off, she found herself at twenty only dutifully fond of her husband. But she loved him with an indescribable love those mornings she woke to the daffodils.

She’d expected to experience some anxiety watching the men from the Goodwill haul her things onto the truck a couple of weeks ago when she made the first round of purging, unmoored without the familiar shadows of her household possessions. Instead, she felt strangely liberated, untethered to a past she had no recollection of deliberately choosing. She was also intrigued as the two young men tugged Hal’s leather recliner down the front steps: what must it be like, she wondered, to spend one’s time collecting the detritus of others’ lives?

She was dragging a box of dusty paperbacks to the front porch for the second scheduled pickup when she opened the front door to the boy, whom she’d only seen from a distance in the week since she’d taken him in during the storm, working the field for hours with the metal detector, its robotic burping loud enough to reach her patio. If the whole of America had the work ethic of that boy, she thought each time she saw him struggling through the field, we wouldn’t be in this economic mess. But there was something unsettling about his dogged obsession as well, a futility and desperation that made her look away.

The boy stood on her butterfly welcome mat, balancing a massive platter of cookies. “Nan Khatai,” Vivek said as soon as she opened the door, thrusting the platter toward her. There were at least two dozen cookies, all meticulously shaped, a whole almond pressed into each gut. “Now we’re even.”

“Your mother made these?” Addie said, not reaching for the cookies. How would she ever eat two dozen cookies by herself? Their presence alone seemed like an overwhelming obligation.

“No,” Vivek responded, but he did not appear inclined to elaborate.

“Come on in.” Addie surprised herself with the invitation. “I’ll need some help eating these.”

He lurched inside, his feet encased in cumbersome therapeutic shoes.

“Those don’t look too comfortable.” Addie gestured toward his feet.

“They’re not so bad,” Vivek said.

Vivek slid the plate of cookies on the kitchen counter. The plate appeared homemade, painted a neon green, like some kind of clumpy pottery a kid would bring home from school as a holiday gift for a parent. “The plate’s for you. For the metal detector.”

I have a plate, Addie almost said, irritated that no matter how much she gave away, how many boxes she stacked on her porch, things had a way of returning to her: a free can opener from the bank, a sample issue of a cooking magazine appearing unwanted in her mailbox, a new pair of silk pajamas left on her doorstep at Christmas, a gift from the Baptist church around the corner she’d been maudlin enough to visit once after Hal’s death. But it seemed important to Vivek that she accept the plate, and so she did.

“Thank you,” Addie said, and Vivek shrugged his uneven shoulders.

Addie poured them each a glass of milk, and they stood at the counter nibbling on the sweet, buttery cookies, both silent under the hum of the fluorescent kitchen lights. Addie knew she was not the best at small talk. She’d rarely invited the other farmers’ wives over for coffee and dessert when such things were expected of her years ago, and when she did, the weary-eyed women had filed into her dusty parlor in homemade dresses, their squawking babies and flesh-grabbing toddlers hoisted onto their wide hips, and they’d eaten their pie and sipped their coffee without much chatter, never asking for a second slice or a refill, excusing themselves for one task or another as soon as politeness allowed. Addie always thought that her lack of children made the women uncomfortable, reminded them of how random and precarious their good fortunes were, and those smug thoughts might have conjured up the guilt and fear that pious women steeped in day after endless day, the worry that surely all that good fortune could and should be taken away in a blink of God’s indifferent eye from foolish mothers ungrateful enough to enjoy a sense of superiority over a childless woman. It was easier to avoid such thoughts altogether.

When she said as much to Hal, he’d told her, “That brain of yours is a wild, strange thing,” but he quit pestering her to invite the other wives over, and Addie had grown to appreciate long, languid days of her own company, to deem others’ presence a distraction, so much so that she found herself unsettled by the tender surge of her heart at the forlorn sound of the boy lapping his milk in timid sips. What kind of boy sipped his milk?

“How’s that contraption working for you?” Addie asked. “You find some space junk?”

The boy smiled nervously, pulling a small bag from his shorts pocket. He dumped its contents on the counter: a few barrettes and other hair contraptions, a slew of bolts and nails, two paint-chipped Matchbox cars, a glass hypodermic needle that must have been close to a century old, a fishing lure, a half-dozen defunct lighters, and a mound of coins. No space junk as far as Addie could tell.

“Take your pick,” Vivek said.

“But I don’t want anything,” Addie responded, perhaps too quickly. The boy’s face clouded, and he snaked his hand toward the counter with the intent of sweeping his finds back into the bag. Addie caught his arm with her hand before he could finish, his flesh warm beneath her palm. Wordlessly, she picked through the mound of objects, finally selecting an old-fashioned metal hair comb that was covered in dirt but otherwise in surprisingly good shape, the kind she used as a young woman to pull her once-heavy hair from her face the way Hal had liked it.

Later, after the boy left, Addie studied that comb for a long time, thinking of the woman who must have worn it, of the man who might have admired the length of the woman’s nape with her hair swept up, what she might have been doing when she lost it, if she were still alive, and if so, if she was old now like Addie. She left the comb on the table and fetched the photo albums and her memory box from the cedar chest Hal had made—one of the few furnishings she did not have the heart to give away—and spent the evening poring over the aged photos and keepsakes, studying each snapshot like a clue, a possible answer to a question she couldn’t quite formulate, until she grew too sleepy to sift through the photos any longer.

That was yesterday, and now Addie could see the comb lying a few inches from her face on the patio brick, but she could not make her arm move to reach for it. Early this morning, on a whim, she’d cleaned the comb with dishwashing soap as best as she could and carefully positioned it in her hair, which could hold its weight only after she doused it in several layers of hairspray. Then she’d stepped outside on the patio during a gap in the rain to have her coffee and read the paper, and the next thing she recalled she was opening her eyes to sky the color of gunmetal, her clothes soaked, the comb just in her peripheral vision, her body no longer her own.

That was what she had been trying to tell the stranger, the sad-faced young man who’d been standing over her when she awoke—that she could not feel her arms or legs, and that it was such a strange feeling, to simultaneously exist and experience nothingness. But the young man had disappeared hours ago, and soon after, when the rain stopped for good and the sky finally blued, she heard Vivek, the irregular heartbeat of the metal detector throbbing the saturated air, the sound so comforting that when it stopped abruptly, she thought for a moment that her own heart had ceased beating.

When the metal detector didn’t start back up, she tried to turn her head to see if Vivek was still in the field, but her muscles refused to obey her brain, and in the end, it didn’t matter anyway. She somehow knew the boy had found what he was looking for, that he was gone. Addie was surprised to feel a pang of disappointment that she’d missed it, the moment he discovered that bit of metal the universe had spat out. How delighted Vivek must have been, holding a piece of the heavens in his hand! She could imagine it now, the boy standing in the tangle of grass admiring the treasure nestled in his palm, the way it glinted and blazed in the raw morning light, a tiny sun illuminating an unknowable world.

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story PINCHED MAGNOLIAS

Dalia brought the butt of her shotgun to her shoulder. Everything was damp, clammy. The air smelled of blooming magnolias and churned-up swamp bed, sweet and earthy all at once. Her husband stood, grinning, on the edge of her property where water met land. He spread his arms, palms toward God, and shrugged a little. Bud was a large man, wide and tall, and his broad shoulders looked ridiculous shuffling around under his denim coveralls. He took a step forward, his mudboots sinking into the black gumbo of the bayou that banked her garden.

“Off my yard, Bud. Now,” she said, the same way she might have said, “Pick up that mess.” Tired sounding, mostly. Bud took another little step, his open arms easing down, and Dalia wriggled her big toe around in the ground, digging a hole. Otherwise, she was still, a five-foot statue in a wide hat and flower-print dress. Her voice was steady and calm, her anger only apparent in how heavy her drawl had become. “Get back, I said.”

Like most of the women in Marti Parish, she’d been brought up with one finger on a trigger, and the weight of the gun felt good in her hands, natural. But Bud was the sort of fool who figured she wouldn’t use it, and he kept walking. “Baby, give me that big ol’ gun,” he said, that grin a smear across his face. “You know you ain’t going to shoot nobody.” It was the same tone he’d taken the first time he’d lifted her shirt in high school, the both of them grinning back then.

“Anybody. It’s ANYbody, you asshole.” She looked down at the hole she’d made in the soil. Her father’d had his own proverbs, wisdoms only he knew. “Nothing good ever grew from shotgun shells,” he’d say, his arms often in the dirt, “but the brass gives roses color.” The hole would do. “Take another step, Bud, really.”

“Baby, you know I love you.” His boots sucked at the ground.

Dalia pulled the trigger, smiled at Bud looking so damn surprised. “Fuck off,” she said, the sweetness of her drawl hanging on the words. She nudged the dispensed shell with her foot and sunk it deep into the dirt, pushing it into her little hole until it all but disappeared. She finished covering it, her foot sweeping and smoothing the moist earth. Only then did she look over at her husband’s body, at the ragged hole the buckshot had ripped through his chest, at the way the blood looked black as it pooled in the mud. She did a mimic of his little shrug and went inside the house to make a pot of coffee.

It wasn’t that she didn’t believe Bud loved her. Honestly, he was the sort of dumb mutt that loved everyone—therein lay the problem. She’d thrown him out when she realized that he was cheating on her, but like the old cur he was, he padded on back whenever he was hungry or lonely. He’d come in his boat, pulling in next to her daddy’s old one, a peace offering of fresh-caught white perch and half a six-pack in his worn hands.

Even that, she could live with, but he wasn’t secret with his whore. She’d eventually met the girl at the Piggly Wiggly, the both of them in the parking lot, Dalia’s cart full of half a month’s groceries, the girl’s holding only gin and tampons. She was just a little bit of a thing, short and dark like Dalia, maybe eighteen, dumb like him, and built like a rolling river, waves of her spilling out of her baby blue hot pants.

Still, Dalia could stomach it. Barely, but she could.

The girl was a stripper, of course, across the river at Pinky’s, somehow managing not to get tetanus or typhus as she crossed its parking-lot-slash-junkyard. Dalia knew the girl was just a symbol of everything that was wrong with Bud and his world and this town and had somehow managed not to hate the child whore. Not really.

She picked up her cell phone and watched the coffee drip. Her sister was sheriff, like their father had been, and so she was the only one to call. “Mary,” she said, the phone resting between ear and arm as she filled a little blue pitcher with cream and pulled out some china, “I’ve shot Bud. You might want to come.”

After their father’s death, Mary had let Dalia keep the family home but had stayed close. Three acres down, she was Dalia’s nearest neighbor. On the other side, the thin, empty homes of seasonal hunting camps leaned toward the ground. Tangled woods choked with brush and dewberries surrounded everything, slipping through and behind the sprawling lots. Only a gravel road and the bayou connected the homes, and in the thick of spring, even they seemed to get lost in the overgrowth.

The coffeepot was hot and ready when Mary stepped into the kitchen. Without even a hello, Dalia poured her a cup, and they sat at the table. Keeping her gaze on the pitcher and off of Dalia, Mary began spooning sugar into her cup.

Like so many sisters, they were opposites and made for mismatched bookends. Mary was slim and tall, her daddy’s girl, and wore rumpled jeans and a T-shirt. Her black boots, so normal everywhere else, looked out of place and clunky across from her sister’s small, naked feet.

“Looks pretty bad out there,” Mary said, finally making eye contact. “The flies are gathering.”

“I’d expect. It’s at least ninety.”

“Really, D,” Mary sounding sad now. “What on earth possessed you to shoot Bud?”

“He kept walking.”

Mary let the spoon clink against the cup as she stirred and stirred. Finally, she just said, “They always do.”

      

No one was surprised when Mary ran for sheriff, Dalia sitting right behind her at every little speech. Marti was a small parish, and everyone had known and loved their daddy. He was good people—maybe not the most honest sheriff, but wasn’t that the way? Honest and effective need not go together, not in Louisiana, and everyone understood Mary’s need to avenge her father’s murder, unsolved and itching at them all like a wound. She won easily enough, despite being a woman, her black hair yanked into a tight ponytail, skin scrubbed clean of any makeup, and Dalia behind her, bowing her head under the brim of a hat, touching her face with a tissue at each mention of their dad.

Dalia gave Mary a quick hug after she was sworn in and said, “He’d be proud,” her voice not quite happy. Mary just nodded.

She’d turned out to be a good sheriff and had been reelected, her sister once again sitting behind her, giving her the rare hug.

The women stood in the yard looking down at Bud.

Mary said, “You should wear shoes out here,” and Dalia wondered if she was just used to bossing people around these days. “Stickers and snakes.”

Dalia poking the body with her toe, “He was handsome when we met, sort of.”

“He was. But now, well, it’s a wonder he caught that girl’s eye.”

“Fairly certain he looked a bit better alive, drunk, and shoving dollars in her panties.” Dalia chewed at her lip. “Idiot. He could make a girl feel special, though, loved. In his own way, I mean. And he was funny.” The hem of her dress slipped into a mix of blood and dirt as she bent to look at her husband. She absently knotted the ends of the skirt like when she was gardening. “But, dumb.” She looked from Bud to Mary. “You know his girl looks like I did when I was young. Well, sluttier, but scrub her face and put some clothes on her . . .”

Her sister shook her head. “You ain’t exactly old.”

Dalia’d had enough of looking at Bud. Water lapped at the edge of the bank, eating it away, and she concentrated on that motion. Once upon a time when the sisters were barely more than babies, before their daddy told them that their mother ran off, before they’d forgotten her smell, her voice, there had been a couple more feet of land to play on out there, their little bodies getting bronze in the sun as they made mud pies. Their daddy drinking Beam and pretending to watch for gators as they played.

“This isn’t okay,” Mary said.

“No.”

There was a rumble of tires against gravel and both women’s heads shot up. Dalia could see a hint of black shifting behind the trees near the road. A pickup. She opened her mouth a little, finding it harder to breathe.

Mary closed her eyes, and Dalia listened to the soft shoosh of her breath. They waited. The truck kept rolling. “That camp past my house, I think. That Dutch guy,” Mary said. “It’s got to be him.”

“Shit.” The sound of the tires was almost gone now.

“Just grab his feet,” Mary said finally, waving a callused hand toward the back side of the house.

Near the farthest corner of the property stood a wooden T-frame attached to an old metal shed, rigged with a winch and rope. The nearest real grocery was the Piggly Wiggly forty-five minutes away, and so, like most everyone else they knew, the girls had been hunting for dinner since they could hold a Remington .410 steady. After a hunt, they had never been allowed to skip the skinning. “Real meat don’t come in plastic wrap,” their daddy would say, slipping a noose high around the neck of a deer before cranking the winch. Once the carcass was dangling from the T-frame, hooves a good foot from the ground, he’d grab a hose, nod toward the knives, and say, “Watch how deep you cut. You bust the gut, you contaminate dinner.” His girls, not quite tall enough to work a good-sized buck, would scrabble onto upturned pails, their daddy, tall and lean, adding his muscle to the job when necessary.

All the buckets were right side up now, but the winch was still oiled and functioning. When hunting season came around in the fall, Mary’d bring what she bagged to her sister’s house, dress it, and leave some of the meat in her freezer.

They half-carried, half-dragged Bud toward the T-frame. 

“Jesus, D, the least you could do is keep your end up,” Mary said.

Dalia’s hat fell off as she adjusted her grip. They’d slipped Bud’s boots off so she could get a good hold on his ankles, but they were wide and he was heavy, and the difference in the sisters’ heights didn’t make carrying him any easier. “Hold on,” she said.

“No. We’re almost there, and I certainly don’t have all day. Buck the hell up.” Mary’s mouth was moving, but Dalia knew that voice. It was her father talking. She didn’t answer, but she stopped and dropped Bud’s feet. Made a show of wiping the sweat from her face with the edge of her skirt despite its filth. Made a show of inspecting her hat, putting it firmly back on. Mary watched her, hands still looped under Bud’s arms, making no move to clear her own eyes of sweat.

They traveled the last few feet without much noise, but when they got to the T-frame, Mary said, “This really isn’t okay,” and as they stripped the man, made the noose, turned the winch, Dalia wondered who in the hell she was talking to, which one of them she was trying to convince.

There is a myth that any meat dumped in the swamp will be eaten by gators, but a body dumped in the bayou was as like as not to end up floating into someone’s camp. That’s how the girls found their daddy: his body bloated and nibbled but mostly intact, except for a missing finger or toe and that hole in his head that really only left his jaw in place.

That day Mary called the deputy while Dalia, home from college, sat with the remains at the edge of the water, rocks and roots digging at her. Laying her fingers on his hand—the skin sloughed off in places—she’d cried a bit and hadn’t returned to campus after, to take care of Mary, she told her friends.

So, the girls knew better than to put a whole man in the water.

They worked quickly, looking up every time a squirrel shifted the tree leaves or an acorn cracked against Dalia’s tin roof.  Once or twice she thought she heard tires again, and she stopped, looked up at nothing. It was dark before they were finished with Bud, but there was light enough from the full moon and the stars to see.

Dalia stripped to her underwear, her dress ruined. “I got a call from his girl last week.”

Mary rolled a metal barrel out from under the shed, the bottom scraping as she tugged it off the uneven concrete that rimmed the building. She filled it with faded newspapers, dropped in her jeans, her T-shirt, Dalia’s dress. “My bra clear?” she asked.

“Looks it.”

“Soak the ground. There’s been a lot of rain lately, but still a hot ash might catch this grass.”

Dalia pulled the hose. “Daddy’s matches are still in the shed,” she said. “There’s lighter fluid, too.” Their father had often burned evidence here—gambling receipts, boxes from off the back of a truck, a dead drug dealer’s clothes. “You not going to ask what she had to say?”

“Is it why you shot him?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

Mary added twigs and Spanish moss to the barrel, more newspaper, threw a match in. “You got to be kidding me, D. You don’t know?” her voice loud.

Dalia ignored her. “She was crying.”

“She claim he beat her?”

“Bud?” Dalia laughed. “No. No, of course not. She said he was leaving her. Begged me to give him back. Like he was mine, like I wanted him.”

With everything damp the fire was slow to catch, and Mary got the lighter fluid out, tried another match. “Did you?”

“No.” Dalia watched the moss and wood and newspapers and bloody clothes light, watched the fire climb and fold itself over the edges of the barrel as if searching for escape. “And isn’t that sad.”

She had wanted Bud so badly when she was younger. Whenever she visited from lsu, he’d show up with magnolias that he pinched from the tree in the front yard, the one her daddy had planted for her when she was six, her daddy saying they’d grow tall together. Bud always claimed that he’d bought the big white blooms, the both of them laughing as he pretended to search for a receipt.

The night her father chased him off, Dalia had sounded just like the girl, Bud’s stripper. “I love him,” she screamed, her voice high-pitched and panting, the sound of it climbing to fill every space in the kitchen.

Her father had just stared at her. His eyes the sort of gray that blanketed the bayou in winter. She’d never yelled at him before, had never really cried, not since she was small. And there she was, sobbing so hard that her body shook. It felt as if her teeth might rattle right out of her head.

Her daddy hadn’t raised his voice, but it crackled like a bonfire. “You’re hysterical and he’s trash.” He put his 12-gauge on the table. “And if he comes back, I’ll shoot him. Now buck the hell up, sit the hell down, and calm yourself. You’re scaring Mary.”

And she knew he would. Her daddy had no problem with killing.

After a while, Dalia looked away from the fire in the barrel and said, “I’m not sure when I stopped wanting Bud; I’m just sure I didn’t want him anymore.”

“Why don’t you get dressed? I’ll watch this,” was her sister’s only answer to that.

       

Along with a large cooler full of the meat, full of Bud, Dalia loaded a frog gig, a couple of Maglites, and some Cokes onto her boat— just in case they were stopped by the Wildlife and Fisheries boys—and waited for the sound of Mary’s truck. She’d gone home for a shower, her badge, and her fishing license. “No need to take any chances,” she’d said.

The bayou was not a lonely or quiet place at night, and Dalia listened to the owls and crickets, watched the lightning bugs. She fought sleep, exhaustion creeping up on her as her boat rocked in the water. Once, she’d wanted to move to Baton Rouge or New Orleans, to be a doctor or an architect, but the cities hadn’t suited her. She’d felt trapped by the concrete, the constant buzz of lights, the people pushing against each other. She missed home, never stayed gone long.

Now, she lived off of her father’s pension and what Bud gave her, dreams of working, of being someone, lost to her wanderings in her daddy’s garden. Mary always helped her out if things got tight.

Tonight a part of her was afraid her sister wouldn’t return, though, so when the grating rumble of tires on pea gravel interrupted the swamp song, it was a relief. She squinted at the lights and felt panicky when they stayed steady, even after the engine cut off. She imagined Mary staring at her, how she looked in the harsh beams, and wondered if Mary hated her a little. As far as Dalia knew, Mary had never taken a bribe or planted evidence, had never enjoyed the “tiny perks” their daddy so loved. She’d walked straight.

Eyes watering from the light, Dalia counted. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Her breath more shallow with each Mississippi. Finally, the lights winked out, and the sound of the door opening knocked her in the chest. Dalia could breathe again, but her eyes were light-blind so she couldn’t see her sister’s face. Mary said, “Last boat ride, D. I mean it,” her voice hot and crackling like their daddy’s.

And suddenly in her head, Dalia was screaming at her daddy all over again. That night in the kitchen. Screaming and begging incoherently. Grabbing his shotgun and running into the night.

“Last boat ride,” she whispered as Mary got into Bud’s boat, untied it. Then Dalia reached for the ropes that held hers, loosed it, and turned the motor over, following Mary down the river.

She imagined what it was like for Mary that night, watching from the doorway as their father chased her. Her sister had worshipped the man, following him around and playing sheriff with his badge, showing him their mud pies and laughing as he told fish stories. Cutting the vegetables as he cooked dinner. Pouring Beam for him to sip on the porch. Always a good daughter. Dalia knew that they hunted together long after she stopped going, and that after she left for college they drank together, played cards together, even missed her together.

She barely knew her little sister when she came home for visits. Even though they were so close in age, she’d always thought of Mary as the baby, but the child had grown out of her quickly, the woman having moved in more and more each month.

Up ahead, Mary cut the motor, called out, “Here’s good.” So Dalia pulled alongside her and tried to hold the boats steady as her sister nimbly climbed from one to the other. “Let’s go,” she said, leaving Bud’s boat to the current. Dalia handed her a Coke and turned the wheel.

They drove for a while and finally cut the engine to drift quietly into a set of smaller waterways that branched off from the main bayou. Cypress knees bumped the hull occasionally, and the water was shallow enough that a wrong turn could beach them. Maglites out, they scanned the marsh grasses with the beams, looking for the red glow of alligator eyes. Frogs’ and spiders’ eyes glow green or yellow under flashlight, and there were plenty of those, the frogs singing nonstop, their voices so big.

Finally they found a series of banks with red reflections and backed the boat a little ways away until they were upstream from what looked to be nesting grounds, the darkness thick with gator eyes.

“Here’s good,” Mary said. It was the first they’d spoken in a while, and Dalia tried to read her sister’s tone. She got nothing from it.

They worked quickly, dropping the meat in the water a bit at a time.

She remembered how surprised her father looked when she whirled on him, his own gun in her hands. His eyes were hidden in the darkness but his whole body shot straight up with the shock of it, and he lifted his palms a little. There was a small noise as if he was about to say, “Baby,” as if the word was caught in his breath. Dalia still wasn’t sure if she actually pulled the trigger that night or if the gun had just gone off. The feel of it kicking in her hands made her think it was alive, that maybe, maybe, it had propelled the shot on its own—maybe she’d done nothing but not stop it. His face opened like a flower, blooming horribly, and she stood there forever, expecting it to close again.

The sound of the meat hitting the water made her feel a little sick. “I did love him,” she said to Mary, unsure of which man she meant.

It had been Mary who took the gun from her that night, who had decided they should leave their father in the dark water. Mary who’d told the deputy that their father’d left to hunt and that they hadn’t seen him since. Mary who’d mentioned a drug dealer from Dallas, mentioned that he’d been calling the house, leaving threats. Mary who’d run for sheriff so that Dalia would always be safe.

Dalia, on the other hand, had done nothing much except marry Bud.

Tossing the bits of the man she’d killed her daddy for into the black of the swamp, she thought of the morning her father floated back to them, of how she did not understand what the thing bumping the bank really was.

The fetid water churned and splashed as gar and bass and finally, finally, the alligators moved in. And the same sweet rot she had smelled a million years ago, sitting on the bank with her daddy’s body, then smelled again with Bud that morning, filled her nose.

DELTA FOXTROT

One Thursday in October, I went to the restored theater downtown for the film-society showing of The Thin Man. Just as the movie started, a handsome man sat down two rows in front of me. First I noticed the hair—thick and wavy like my husband’s when we first met. Then I found myself studying his profile, how his expression changed as the black-and-white movie menaced us with its long shadows, its echoing footsteps and tilted fedoras. I thought how like a scene in a movie it was: him unaware that I was watching him as he watched the screen, his face alternately illuminated and shadowed by what was playing out above us.

Afterward, the society president announced that we were all welcome to meet for drinks at a restaurant down the street. I’d never gone along before and didn’t know anybody in the group, but the hair guy was walking over, so I thought what the hell, why not try to meet some people? Everyone clustered around the bar, waiting to order, and I worked my way through until I stood next to him. He was squinting up at the chalkboard above the bar as if he couldn’t quite make out the list of wines and beers.

“How could you see the movie if you can’t see that?” I asked.

Though his eyes were small and his nose a bit too thin and sharp, the hair was so luxurious that when he smiled I felt foolishly pleased with myself.

“I can see what it says,” he said, putting out his hand for me to shake. “I just can’t decide what I want.”

His name was Preston.

“Preston, huh? Like the writer of The Great McGinty and The Palm Beach Story?” Movies my husband showed me years ago, back when the only dates we could afford were nights at home with a six-pack and a video.

He made a cute little half bow. “I wish I could say that Sturges is my middle name, but it’s really Edward.”

“The official middle name of the male wasp.”

“I had a Jewish grandfather, so I’m not technically a wasp.”

“Saved by the mohel!”

He laughed, and I thought, this guy likes to play. When our turn came at the bar, he asked if I’d share a bottle with him. I said I preferred red. The film-society people were talking around a big table on the other side of the room, but when the bartender set the Sangiovese and two glasses in front of us, Preston carried them to a small table by the big plate glass windows overlooking the street.

As he poured, he said he was working on a PhD in film studies.

“You seem remarkably cheerful for somebody in that line.”

He laughed in a good-natured way; maybe he’d heard that before. “And what do you do?”

“For the last eight years, I’ve mostly been home with my two children, but now my youngest is in kindergarten. So I work part-time in a paper store.” (For some reason, I forgot to say it was my husband’s store.) “You know, writing paper, printed invitations, party supplies, that kind of thing.”

“You’re a stationer. That’s so wonderfully old-fashioned.” He leaned his elbows on the table and gazed at me as he listened. I knew it was partly the wine, partly his determined interest, but I couldn’t help looking at that hair and wishing I could get my hands all in it. That he was younger—in his early thirties as opposed to my just-turned forty—made his attention all the more flattering.

Each Thursday after that, the film-society people sat at their big table, and Preston and I shared a bottle at our two-top. After a few weeks, I realized that he assumed I was separated from my husband. I knew I ought to correct his false impression, but I didn’t want him to think I’d assume a man wanted to date me just because we shared a few bottles of wine and some laughs.

Each Thursday, I arrived home later—eleven, eleven-thirty, midnight—giddy from flirting, gobbling breath mints and swearing I would never drive myself again after that many drinks. The house was always quiet when I came in. Even the dog couldn’t be bothered to get off his bed and greet me. Upstairs, the bedside lamps would be on, my husband under the covers—a book fallen on his chest, his head lolling to the side—completely unconcerned about my safety or my fidelity.

 

On Saturdays, my husband stayed with the children while I ran errands and visited my father. When Daddy first moved into assisted living, he would scold me.

“You don’t have to check on me all the time. Live your life, out there in the world.” As though it were a place he was glad to have escaped rather than one he’d fought leaving. But if I didn’t come for a few days, he’d go down to the nurses’ station and make them call me. “Where the hell have you been?” he’d ask when they handed him the phone. “Down with the clap?”

“Yeah, Daddy. The fleet was in last weekend, and now I’m on penicillin.”

“Serves you right.”

My mother would have said that somebody ought to have incarcerated my father long ago, but she hadn’t lived long enough to gloat. Four years ago, she’d left her vacation house at Sea Island, Georgia, put her car key in the ignition, and collapsed on the steering wheel before she could turn it. An aneurysm. Her husband, a retired banker, found her when he came home for lunch after golfing all morning. “Never knew what hit her,” he said when he called, as if her lack of self-awareness might, for once, make me feel better. The banker, she’d always maintained, was an afterthought and not the cause of her split from my father. She and my father had opposing dispositions—his dark and cynical, hers relentlessly, almost abusively sunny. His rude salty talk was just one of many things about him that she didn’t care for.

“Jesus, Charlie,” she’d say, “you cuss like a sailor.”

“I am a sailor,” he’d roar, jostling the ice cubes in his glass to let her know he needed more scotch.

Sailing was how they’d met, through friends of friends, at a beach club near Wrightsville in 1964. She’d just graduated from the women’s college; he was forty-two, divorced, a partner at a respected Raleigh law firm. When they were introduced, he frowned and said, “Well, you’re an attractive little thing,” as though attractiveness was an obstacle he was going to have to work around.

They were married the next summer. She had double-majored in classics and art history, planning to become a curator, but my father was old-fashioned and didn’t want his wife to work. She filled her time volunteering until, after two miscarriages, I came along. I was too late—they were already irreconcilably unhappy, often arguing and worried about money. Sailing remained the one thing they could stand to do together, momentarily forgetting their quarrels as they jibbed and tacked.

They sent me to sailing camp, where I failed to progress. As much as I loved the wind on my face on a sunny day, I couldn’t be bothered with navigation and ropes and all the figuring out that the work of sailing required. Even so, nautical terms were our family lingua franca, and it was a regular thing for the three of us to speak as code the names of the flags sailors use to signal other vessels, one flag for each letter of the alphabet. Many an evening my father would come home from the office, glowering, and head straight for the wet bar. If my mother asked him what was the matter, he’d throw up his hand and say, “Delta,” meaning, Keep clear of me. I am maneuvering with difficulty.

I used to try them with my husband, but he’d just raise his eyebrow and say, “Really? A flag? That’s all I get?” Even my jokes about semaphornication, complete with hand gestures, couldn’t win him over to the flag system.

It was just as well. Married twelve years and together for sixteen, we’ve developed our own private language. For instance, if he mentions the Civic hatchback he drove when I first knew him, I’ll say, My, she was yar, and he knows I mean that those were happy days. It’s Katharine Hepburn’s line in The Philadelphia Story about the sailboat Cary Grant designed for their honeymoon. They’re divorced, but as soon as she says, My, she was yar, with that wistful expression on her face, you know they’re going to get back together.

By the time my father went to assisted living, he had forgotten about the divorce and the banker. When I visited, he would fuss because my mother wasn’t there to receive me. Out shopping, he’d grouse, as though she, not he, had been the impulsive spender. I didn’t argue. He’d go on complaining about her, the irritation in his voice so fresh that sometimes I almost believed that they were still married, that she was still alive.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving was the first time my children saw my father after he moved into the nursing wing. Assisted living had been bright and lively, with Bingo games and a resident golden retriever. But the nursing wing was “one of those places,” as in, when your friends—whose parents are still playing golf and cruising to Puerto Vallarta—say, “I’d never put my folks in one of those places.” (To which I say, “Good luck with that.”) The fluorescent light pressed down on you, the beige walls pressed in on you, and if that wasn’t enough to choke you and make you want to run, there were the sickbed odors, masked by something cloying and purportedly floral. Every now and then the ambulatory patients set off the exit alarm with their ankle bracelets.

The oldest resident, Mrs. Beamon, 101, always parked her wheelchair where you would be forced to walk close to her. Everything about Mrs. Beamon—white hair, ecru bathrobe, pallid skin—was devoid of color except her pink slippers and her baby doll, wrapped in a blue crocheted blanket. When she saw my children, she extended a trembling hand toward them and made a guttural noise.

“Say hello,” I prompted Jacob, who was staring as though Mrs. Beamon were a rare albino animal exhibited behind glass. When he spoke, she gurgled again, and Elsie put her face in my skirt until I told Jacob it was okay to move along.

Down the hall in Room 132, my father’s favorite CNA, Bobby, was helping him brush his teeth.

“He’s the only one I’ll let bathe me,” Daddy would say. “He’s not queer like most of these male orderlies. He’s got seven children and four grandchildren.”

“Homosexuals have children, Daddy,” I sighed.

“Not in Jamaica, they don’t!”

Now my father stared at the television as Bobby handed him a cup of water and held a pink kidney-shaped tray under his mouth. Elsie made a sound of intrigued disgust when Daddy spat, and Jacob nudged her. They started poking and scrapping until I threw them a look.

“Knock knock,” I sang, hating my own false cheer as I rapped my knuckles on the open door.

Daddy’s eyes darted to me, shrunken and angry behind his bifocals. “Foxtrot,” he said. The flag that means I am disabled; communicate with me.

“It’s all right, Mr. Charlie, we’re done.” Bobby wiped Daddy’s chin with a washcloth and stepped back. “Now you’re all fresh for a visit with your daughter and your beautiful grandchildren.” Bobby was good like that—he always found a subtle way to remind Daddy who I was.

An anguished cry came from across the hall—a man, pleading, “Help me, Father.”

Daddy shook his head. “Calling for his priest. Does it all day and night. He can’t help it. Poor old bastard doesn’t know where he is.”

“Yes, it’s true,” Bobby agreed. “He’s confused.” With his usual inconspicuous efficiency, he finished straightening the things on the hospital table, then beckoned to the children. “Here’s the little man, not so little, what you, about nine?”

“Eight,” Jacob said.

“And, Miss Lady, your mama tells me you’re a dancer. Is that true?”

Elsie shuffle-ball-chained, bit her lip, then added some jazz hands.

“Look at you, with your razzle-dazzle! You see that, Mr. Charlie? Your grandbaby can dance.”

Daddy frowned at us, then turned his eyes back toward the television. “Your mother didn’t tell me you were coming. She never tells me anything.”

 

By the middle of December, they had Daddy on oxygen, and I was stopping by the home every day, always missing the doctor on his rounds, never able to find the right nurse who could tell me about my father’s condition. With Christmas coming, things were crazy at the store and the children were wild with Santa fever. Still, I managed to get to film club on Thursday nights. My life at home felt like low-budget mumblecore—a plotless ramble, all awkward pauses and tense situations—and I was looking to Preston to put me in a zippier feature. I yearned for sparkling dialogue, zany capers, dance numbers, and satin gowns cut on the bias. I wanted to drink my morning coffee while wearing a feather-trimmed dressing gown, winking at a man with brilliantined hair on a goddamned train.

Sure enough, one Thursday night Preston walked me to my car, took me in his arms, and kissed me in a way that let me know he’d been wanting to do it for a long time. His lips felt and tasted surprising, different, wrong. But also appreciative, eager, and, if not right, then right on. We were only kissing, after all. I could stop after kissing and still be considered a faithful wife. When he ran his hand inside my blouse, it was startling but not unwelcome.

Romeo: The way is off my ship. You may feel your way past me.

Soon, though, we had climbed into the back of my Honda—only because it was cold, I reasoned, and we couldn’t very well stand around making out in a parking deck where we might be seen. The car was the perfect spot in which to explain to him that we had to cease at once. But maybe, first, just a little more kissing, because that damage was done already, and I might as well enjoy it before I shut it down forever. But then, somehow, pants were off, and it was only a matter of minutes before even I couldn’t trick myself, in any way, into thinking I was still a faithful wife.

Alpha: Diver below.

Bracing my left foot on the back of the driver’s headrest, I abandoned myself to him, not caring that the sharp corner of a juice box was pressing into my behind.

Bravo: I am taking on or discharging explosives.

“I want to be with you,” he whispered.

Something in me summoned the wit to say, “Well, of course you do, after that.”

“Come home with me.”

I said I’d come over on Saturday. I figured I could visit Preston, shower at his place, pick up the dry cleaning, see Daddy, do the grocery shopping, go home and put the food away, and still make Jacob’s karate tournament by 2 pm. When I got to Preston’s apartment that Saturday, much more groomed than I usually am on the weekend, we went at it right away. In true romantic comedy fashion, we stumbled around the apartment in progressively giddy undress before falling onto his futon. After performing the sex act in several classic—but for me nearly forgotten—styles, I caught sight of his alarm clock and gave a cry that he mistook for pleasure. I had allotted time for married sex, not adulterous sex, and I was already late for Jacob’s tournament. Obviously, Saturdays were going to be more complicated, schedule-wise, than I had envisioned.

That afternoon, as I sat, aching, on the hard bleachers, cheering on Jacob as he sparred, I told myself that having an extramarital affair was a common enough life experience. Not one I’d planned to have, surely, but it was too late for plans now. Besides, didn’t I believe in fate? This affair with Preston was meant to be. Why else would my husband have suggested that I start attending the film-society screenings? Why else had Preston been sitting right where I could admire his lupine hair and feel those first stirrings of lust? I had been sent to the theater expressly to find Preston because there was something I was meant to learn, to discover. It was some kind of test. I was going to grow. As a person.

The whistle blew, and we clapped as Jacob bowed to his opponent. My dalliance with Preston wouldn’t hurt my family. I’d make sure my husband didn’t find out, and anyway, I was sure it wouldn’t last long. I just had to get Preston out of my system, and the only way I knew to get a man out of your system was to keep having sex with him until it didn’t seem fun anymore. I figured you didn’t have to be married to do that.

 

About two months passed, and the less I enjoyed the sex, the guiltier I felt. Tenderness crept in without my meaning for it to, and that worried me. Once or twice, I allowed myself to think what it would be like if I left my husband. I imagined sleeping every night in Preston’s one-bedroom apartment, with the moldy shower curtain and the bicycle in the living room. I’d miss my pillow top mattress and my matching blue Chinese ginger jar lamps. (I could bring them along, but Preston had no bedside tables.) I’d never again eat my husband’s sweet potato pancakes with my children on Sunday morning. And how many years would it take to achieve the companionable silence I now enjoyed with my husband? I couldn’t imagine returning to that phase when somebody was always saying, “What’s wrong? Are you sure? You seem upset.” It was like when somebody asked if I was going to have a third child and I thought about going back to all those diapers and sleepless nights.

So when Preston asked if my divorce was moving along, I’d say, “It’s complicated. I don’t want to talk about it.” But that didn’t satisfy him. He wanted to visit my father and play with my children; he was sure they would all become fond of him. They wouldn’t, I promised. I assured him that they were difficult, opinionated people whom he didn’t want to know. I reminded him to live in the moment. It didn’t matter what I said, though—he pressed; he sulked. Obviously, I’d soon have to break up with him, but I didn’t know the etiquette, and I liked having somewhere to go on Saturdays besides the nursing home. Plus, there was this one thing Preston did on that futon that my husband had never much gone for, and I wasn’t quite ready to give it up.

Then my father took a turn for the worse. It was the week of Valentine’s; the film was Bringing Up Baby. To my embarrassment, Preston brought me a red rose and put his arm around me during the screening. If any of the film-society people ever met me in the grocery store with my husband, I was going to be in big trouble. At the bar afterward, we took our usual table. I explained that I wouldn’t be able to come over that Saturday and that, no, he couldn’t visit my father with me.

“You’re my break from all that, Preston. You’re my Philadelphia Story. You’re my Palm Beach Story.”

“I know it’s probably been a long time since you’ve seen those movies,” he pouted, “but you might recall that in both of them the husband and wife get back together.”

I had to backpedal. Managing him had become too much like dealing with a touchy girlfriend—all hurt feelings and guesswork and apologies. “Oh, Preston. You know what I mean. Romance and all that. Good times. Black-and-white.”

He clasped my hands on the tabletop, and I prayed nobody was watching. “But I want to be more than that,” he said. “I want to be with you. I want to be there for you.”

Behind the big windows of the restaurant, the street was slick with rain.

 

The Saturday after I told Preston I couldn’t see him, I went by the library on my way to visit Daddy. The day before, the x-rays had come back, confirming that he had pneumonia. Too weak to rearrange himself in the bed or cough up the stuff in his lungs, he hadn’t been up for talking. All he could do was work on breathing. So I thought this time I’d just sit with him, even read to him if he liked.

At the library, I picked up a Czech novel I’d seen reviewed and a cookbook I thought would interest my husband. I dawdled among the shelves, looking for something I could read to Daddy. I hated seeing him the way he was now—his eyes yellowed, nails brittle, skin flaking. In the last few months, I could barely bring myself to touch him; a pat on the shoulder, a kiss on the forehead, or a brief hand squeeze was all I could manage. I’d back out of his room, throwing him bright promises of return, and then hurry to the visitors’ bathroom to wash my hands with antibacterial soap and the hottest water I could stand.

I settled on a book about Churchill—“never, never, never give up” was one of my father’s favorite sayings—and as I was checking out, my phone vibrated. Preston wanted me to come over for a “quick glass of wine.” I reminded him I had to go see my father. It was the same excuse I gave my husband when I went to see Preston; now I was trying to use it to get out of seeing Preston.

“You have time for just one glass.”

“All right. But no funny business.”

“I love that you call it funny business.”

By the time we made it out of the bedroom, it was nearly four o’clock, the time I was supposed to be back home.

“Fuck. I haven’t even been to the nursing home yet. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” I struggled into my coat.

“What’s the big deal?”

“I have a family, you know. I can’t just be gone all the time.”

“Okay.” He frowned, uncertain how to take my anger. “But you’re separated. You’re allowed to date.”

Uniform: You are running into danger.

“My father is really sick.”

“I know that, sweetie, but I don’t think it’s fair for you to be mad at me because I invited you over for a glass of wine and made love to you—”

I can’t stand to hear a man say “made love.” It sounds so cheesy and sentimental.

“—You never said you had to be home at a certain time, and I don’t think it’s fair for you to be mad at me because you have scheduling problems.”

He lay on his back, his hands clasped behind his head so that his elbows stuck out, the sheet draped to hide his junk. There was something so lazy and cavalier about him just then, his beady eyes roving over me as I dressed, that I got mad. It sounded like he was taunting me because he thought he was free and I was trapped.

“You know what, Preston? I think I’m getting sort of tired of you.”

It was the first time I’d ever been mean to him, and I saw what went on in his face. He struggled not to say something mean back, like “Your pussy wasn’t tired of me ten minutes ago.” No, that was too vulgar for Preston. Hoo-ha? Too comic. Straight-up “vagina”? Forget it. He couldn’t say words like that. The point is, I saw him think of mean things to say and dismiss them. I saw him decide to take the high road. Now, there is nothing I hate more in an argument than when somebody takes the high road. Because you know what people do up there on the high road? Look down on you. Look down on you, all smug, as you scream and shake your fist and dare them to come down and fight.

There were a hundred nasty things I wanted to say, but this time I took the high road myself. I told him I had to visit my sick father and go feed my children their supper. He didn’t need to know that I don’t do the cooking at my house. Properly chastened, he said that he understood. I kissed him to show we were made up and ran out to the car.

 

Three women in teal scrubs smoked in the parking lot, looking at their phones. Shift change. Inside, televisions blared, and the med techs moved in and out of doors doling out pills, worker bees in a hive of unmoving queens. I turned at the photo collage of residents, turned again at the framed poster of a Mary Cassatt mother and child, and hurried around Mrs. Beamon cradling her baby doll. Daddy’s door was closed; he usually napped in the afternoon. Not wanting to wake him, I opened it just enough to see his bare freckled back. Bobby and a female attendant were bathing him or changing his diaper, so I softly closed the door again and leaned against the wall to wait.

After a few minutes, Bobby came out, gave me a sorrowful look, and put his hand on my arm. He’d never touched me before. I thought my father must be really bad off, and he wanted to prepare me for what I was about to see.

“We’ve got Mr. Charlie’s shirt on him now, and I’ll come back in a few minutes to shave him.”

He spoke quietly, as though he didn’t want anyone to hear. I wondered why he was continuing to pat my arm, shaking his head mournfully and moaning in gentle commiseration. Finally, it dawned on me to ask, “Are you saying—is he dead?”

His eyes widened, and he pulled back without letting go of my arm.

“Oh. I’m sorry! The nurse said she would call you.” He shook his head again, this time at the ambient incompetence that suffused the place and made his job even harder. I reached for my phone. Then I realized how pointless it was to check my voicemail to find out what I already knew. Helpless, I held up my empty hands to Bobby. Now what?

He touched the door handle. “Do you want to see him?”

I nodded. Inside, the blinds were drawn against the fading afternoon, so the room was fairly dark. The female attendant cleared away the soiled diapers and the pan of water they’d used to wash him, then scurried out, mumbling her condolence. The head of the bed was raised to an angle between sitting up and lying down, as though Daddy was just relaxing to watch some TV. They’d buttoned his blue-and-white-striped shirt at the throat, wet-combed his silver hair, and drawn the institutional blanket up to his sternum. His mouth hung open, and without his dentures, his caved cheeks made him look more gaunt than usual. He needed that shave Bobby was going to give him, but all in all, he didn’t look terrible for a man who would have been eighty-one in a few months and who’d been sick a long time.

“I’m just not hungry,” he’d said on Thursday. “It hurts when I try to put food in my stomach.”

Whiskey: I require medical assistance. I’d known he was dying, of course. I just hadn’t wanted to think about it.

I crossed to the bed and put my hand on his chest, thin and hard under his shirt. If I knocked on it, I wondered, what kind of sound would come?

“When?” I asked Bobby. Where had I been?

“Maybe forty-five minutes ago. Maybe an hour.”

Preston’s.

“Was he alone?” I undid the top button of Daddy’s shirt, then the second. Now he looked more comfortable, more natural.

“Yes. He was alone. I came in to check on him a while ago, and the TV was off. That was strange because usually he turns it on at lunchtime.”

“He said he couldn’t hear the screamer down the hall if the TV was on.”

Bobby nodded. “For a minute I thought he was asleep, but then I saw.”

Daddy’s right hand hung out from under the blanket, dangling off the side of the bed. I remembered how I used to flop my arm off the top bunk at camp just to freak out the girl in the bunk below. “Oooh!” she’d squeal. “Stop it! It looks like a dead body’s up there!”

“Was he feeling worse? Did he ask anybody to call me?” Was he mad because I wasn’t there? That’s what I really wanted to know. But Bobby had no answers. He approached the bed, took rubber gloves from a box on the hospital table, and put them on. “I think your father passed peacefully.” He pushed the chin closed, then stood, holding my father’s jaw, staring at the closed blinds. It struck me how many times Bobby must have helped people this way.

When I’d been there earlier in the week, Daddy had complained that his back was sore from lying around so much. Rubbing his shoulders through his nylon pajama shirt, I realized it was the first time I’d touched him that long in years.

“Oh, that feels so good,” he’d sighed. “You used to beg to rub my back when you were a little girl. You were too small to do it hard enough.” He scratched his whiskers with a thick overgrown fingernail. “But it’s the thought that counts.”

I’d thought of Preston, then. How simple was the thing I’d been seeking; it could have come from anybody. Ashamed, I had massaged Daddy’s back until he said my arms must be getting tired and it was okay to stop.

“You don’t have to hold his mouth closed,” I told Bobby. “It doesn’t bother me.”

“Maybe if we do this.”

He lowered the head of the hospital bed, then rolled up a hand towel and wedged it between Daddy’s chin and chest. We agreed that was better. Bobby showed no impatience, but I knew he had work to do and told him he didn’t need to stay with me. He bowed his head.

“I will pray for your father’s soul to rest. And for you and your family.”

“Thank you.”

After Bobby left, I took my father’s dangling hand and tucked it under the blanket. His stillness unnerved me. Now what? I rummaged in my purse for a notepad to start a list: Call the undertaker. Pack up Daddy’s things. Call his brother down in Baton Rouge and his cousin in D.C. Write the obituary. But the problems weighing on me were not the ones I was writing down. I needed to call home.

“Oh, honey,” said my husband, his voice breaking in sympathy. “I’ll just drop off Jacob and Elsie at the Lawrences’, and then I’ll be right there.”

“Don’t tell them yet. I’ll do it when I get home.”

“All right.”

“You know what I was thinking just now when I was calling you? I was thinking that if Daddy was the one making this call, you know, about me, or something, he would’ve flagged you. When you answered the phone, he would have said, ‘Oscar.’”

“What’s that mean?”

“Man overboard.”

“Poor Charlie. At least you were there with him.”

“But that’s just it,” I said, before I could chicken out. “I wasn’t here.”

There was a pause. Waiting for him to respond, I walked over to open the blinds, but it was five-thirty in February and already dark outside. I could smell the dinner trays out in the hall.

“Of course you were there,” he said firmly.

From the pause, and the way he spoke, I realized he didn’t want me to tell him anything. There would be no catharsis through confession. He was not going to indulge or absolve me, and my father, cooling on the bed, that towel under his chin, had gone where he could no longer help me, even if he’d been the kind to help, and I’d been the kind to ask.

EASY LOVE

Sunday was Emma’s birthday. It was also my birthday, and, unfortunately, Dan’s birthday, too. What were the chances of an entire family having a birthday on the same day? “We’re just crazy-lucky like that,” Emma used to tell people.

This year, Emma would turn thirteen, I was going to be forty-three, and Dan—my husband, Emma’s dad—had died last April, so he would be forty-five forever.

In the weeks leading up to the “big day,” Emma claimed desperately one moment that she had to have a party and claimed the next that all parties were “annoying” and “stupid” and that she wouldn’t sit through one unless I gave her a thousand dollars. I longed to spend the day distracted by a chaotic sleepover or shepherding a herd of girls through an afternoon of disco bowling, but the final word was absolutely not, no “pathetic” birthday party for her.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “I think maybe we should do something.”

“No party,” she said. “No special dinner. No nothing. Just no.” She was hunkered down into the big leather couch, and I perched on the edge, watching the Caps’ hockey game. Emma wore the lucky “Rock the Red” T-shirt Dan gave her during last year’s playoff run. Dan had been a hockey fan, had played goalie in college, and while I could follow the action, I couldn’t care about the outcome the way he and Emma did. Win, lose, tie: there was another game soon enough, another season, a different team to root for if yours wasn’t any good this year. Not that I shared these scandalous thoughts.

“I want a party for myself then,” I said. Of course I didn’t: the torment of planning and shopping, the fake smile pinning my lips upward as I pretended to have a swell and jolly time. I squeezed a throw pillow in my arms.

“Have a party,” she said. “So what.”

“I will,” I said. “And you’re invited.”

“I might be busy that day.”

“You don’t know when my party is.”

“In general I’m quite busy,” she said.

I laughed, flung aside the pillow, and gave Emma a half-hug, which was all she allowed these days, and only when I was able to sneak it in—which is why I was watching the game with her, because whenever the Caps scored, she’d fling her arms around me in a brief, loose moment of happiness, and that moment was a lightning glimpse of how things used to feel—so good, so simple, my life filled with that kind of easy love.

In the end, she relented the tiniest bit and let me invite three of her friends, but otherwise the party guests were family, and what with Kennedy Center tickets and pottery classes and gymnastics meets and all the flotsam of suburban life, it turned out that brunch worked best for those who “had” to be there. I sprang this bad news on Emma, who glared up at me from the kitchen table like I had sprouted a Cyclops eye. Then she quickly shrugged and said, “So? Why should I care?  I like pancakes fine.”

“Because we always celebrated Dad’s birthday at breakfast,” I said.

She twirled her fork in her spaghetti noodles, round and round, then let it drop onto the plate with a clatter. “Obviously.”

I waited for her to say more, hoped she might laugh with me about how Dan insisted that his birthday meant he got sausage, ham, and bacon, “a big ole plate of each.” Or that she might tear up. But her eyes remained flat and clear. She shrugged again, a dismissive flick. I smiled brightly. “We’re set then,” I said. “And I hired a clown.”

“Oh, God,” she groaned. “Super embarrassing. I’m way too old for a pathetic clown.”

“The clown is mine,” I said. “I want a clown.”

“Seriously? Since when do you care about clowns?”

“What’s a birthday party without a clown?” I asked.

She gave her plate quick, tiny, measured nudges, one after the other, until it was pushed right up against her water glass. One more and the water would spill. Then she shot me the Cyclops glare again. “My friends are not coming over if some stupid clown’s running around.”

“The clown is for me,” I repeated. “He’s my clown. So don’t worry. He’ll be happy to stay away from you and your friends.”

She stood up and headed toward the den but turned back to holler: “You know, there are people who have phobias about clowns! It’s like a real disease! Don’t always be so selfish.”

 

Selfish.

In another world, my daughter might have been burned at the stake, because how could she have known that, yes, I was being entirely selfish? I had hired Slappy the Clown, a.k.a. Jason Phillips, who had an earlier role as my high school boyfriend. Everyone snoops on Facebook, so I wasn’t doing anything bad, wondering one night what he looked like, and then clicking a few computer keys: full head of dark hair, hadn’t ballooned a gut, and looked basically like he did the last time I saw him, when I broke his heart by telling him about Dan.

Oh, and he was single, if Facebook was to be trusted—which it wasn’t, since my Facebook page proclaimed me to be married.

 

The morning of the party was crisp and sunny and blue. I was secretly hoping for a wintry mix or a massive snowstorm—anything to keep people away, to keep Slappy the Clown from being able to drive from Reston to Alexandria.

Since the weather was about as perfect as winter weather gets, I loofahed with the fancy shower gel and took extra time with my makeup. A skirt, the shoes that were too nice to wear, the French perfume I hadn’t used in forever. I mean, it was a party, right? Anyone would want to look good for someone from high school, right?   

The Spoon Catering van pulled up exactly on time, which got me nervous, as if things going well now could only mean that soon everything would go wrong. Things going well cannot be sustained.

Women in black chef jackets sweetly commandeered the kitchen and dining room, setting up a waffle station, a bloody mary bar, and what I called the dead pig buffet (bacon, ham, and sausage, which the caterer had kindly noted was “quite a variety of protein choices”). Emma was in her bedroom, rejecting dozens of outfits that I would later find scattered on her floor like a flurry of used tissues. I was in the powder room, setting out the guest towels people would be afraid to touch, when the doorbell rang.

Probably my mother, who arrived everywhere half an hour early, which meant she sat in her car for twenty minutes, staring straight ahead. I told her many times she should just come in, that it was stalkerish to sit outside in a car like that. It certainly wasn’t Dan’s mother, for whom the phrase, “I’m running a little late, dear,” was invented. Dan’s mother, his sister, my uncle and his wife, my cousin and her kids, the rest . . . the reality of the party bushwhacked my gut as I stared at my made-up face in the bathroom mirror. Would it be funny to lock myself in the powder room and refuse to come out? No, I didn’t do things like that, so I ran to the front door. My mother could help with Emma; maybe she’d have the patience to sort out the clothing traumas.

It was Slappy the Clown, wearing a well-pressed but loose, vibrantly blue jacket edged with candy cane striping, punctuated with four bulging polka-dotted pockets. Matching pants. Slurpee blue, a color no one in the real world would wear. His face and neck were aggressively white, a wall of makeup, and his wig flamed scarlet, inflating his head three times the normal size. Eyes circled in black, eyebrows shaped like waves. The traditional clown nose seemed tame in comparison to the rest of the get-up. He smiled at me—rather, his wide painted-on lips smiled, and didn’t stop smiling. Mesmerizing. I had to look away. In one hand he held a pair of two-foot-long vinyl, red and blue saddle shoes, which he dropped onto the ground. Slung over his shoulder was a lumpy duffel bag. A red Lexus SUV sat in my driveway. I mean, I didn’t expect him to show up in a tiny clown car, but something about the Lexus embarrassed me, as if he were nothing but a DC lawyer dressed up like a clown. It bothered me, the surprise of that car.

“Slappy’s here,” he said, pulling a toy bicycle horn out of a pocket and honking it.

“Yes,” I said. “I thought we said eleven o’clock.”

He shot up his sleeve to show me his wrist and the old-fashioned alarm clock strapped there. Instead of numbers there were pictures of clown faces. “Exactly. Clown o’clock.” More honks. “Right on time,” and he slid through the door, nudging his clown shoes inside with one foot. He wore a pair of ragged flip-flops and his toes looked too naked.

“Jason, it’s me,” I said, feeling awkward. I reached behind him to lock the door—I don’t know why—and the click was loud in the small entryway. “Kathy Werner, from high school.”

He pulled a pair of oversized, striped eyeglass frames out of a pocket, slipped them on, and peered closely at me. “Bless your heart,” he said, non-committally. “So it is you.”

I felt my face redden. I had booked him online, impulsively not using my married name, assuming he would make the connection. How vain I was, expecting him to remember me all these years later. He had sworn—with that deep and frightening ardor that certain high school boys affect—that we were destined to be together, inspired by an English teacher who had assigned Wuthering Heights. In fact, our early romance mirrored our English classes: he wrote sonnets and recited soliloquies during our Shakespeare unit; there was a series of rhyming couplets that coincided with Alexander Pope; the modernists set loose stream of consciousness love letters. He was inspired by absolutely anything, and I loved that about him, even as it wore me out. It was surprising that he ended up as a clown (with a Lexus), yet it wasn’t, since he got every lead in the school plays. Just before our junior year of college, his father committed suicide, and Jason dropped out to move back to Virginia. Unfortunately, that was right around the time I met Dan.

Emma’s voice from upstairs: “Mo-om! All my clothes are putrid!” I turned and went up a couple of stairs, then looked back at Slappy, who was using the cuff of his jacket to polish the nonexistent lenses of his eyeglasses.

He said, “I know who you are.” He stared up at me with that painted smile stretched across his face.

“It’s good to see you, Jason,” I said.

“Look at me,” he said. “I haven’t changed a bit.”

I chuckled nervously, and Emma shrieked, “Mo-om! Oh my God! Hurry up!”

“She’s turning thirteen today,” I said as an explanation and an excuse. “She’s kind of dramatic sometimes.”

“And you’re turning forty-three.”

Of course he would remember. Again, I blushed. He kept smiling.

His birthday was December 26; “all my presents were bought on sale that day,” he used to complain, “wrapped in half-price Christmas paper.” So my gift was given before Christmas, on the solstice. He liked that. A lifetime ago.

I smelled bacon; someone ran the garbage disposal in the kitchen. Upstairs, Emma slammed a door. I grabbed the painted railing, rubbed one thumb along the underside. “Who thought we’d end up so old?” I asked.

“Me,” he said. “Back when I was thirteen, I figured out the whole racket, one year coming after another. How they pile up. How they accumulate into this.” He motioned one arm in half a semi-circle.

This what? I looked at him uncertainly. My house? My rickety, middle-aged mom-body? My life with a dead husband and a cranky daughter who couldn’t clothe herself without a hissy fit?  Then he laughed and said, “Don’t say Jason. You’ve got to call me Slappy.”

“Slappy,” I repeated.

“Slappy the Clown,” he said, “to be specific. When you Google me, you also get Slappy the Puppet and a ventriloquist’s dummy. But I’m first.” He paused, as if I was supposed to say something, then said, “Don’t ask me any questions about it, okay?”

“But you look great,” I said.

He lifted his horn and honked it in my face. “Darn tootin’,” he said.

Emma appeared at the top of the stairs wearing black leggings, studded boots I’d never seen that rose well above her knees but mercifully were flat, and an unfamiliar sleeveless sweater, oversized and so fluffy and white that it made me think of a standoffish, expensive cat. “Great. The clown’s here,” she said. “It looks stupid.”

“This is Slappy,” I said. “The Clown. ‘He’, not ‘it.’”

Jason bowed low and tugged a bouquet of daisies out of his sleeve.

“Oh my God.” Emma rolled her eyes and stalked off to the den.

“I’ve never seen that sweater,” I called after her.

“It’s Tilda’s,” she yelled back. “She’s letting me borrow it—” and the rest was cut off by the voices from the Sunday morning TV news shows that Dan had followed.

Jason presented the flowers to me. “Happy Birthday,” he said. “Better get these in water,” and I automatically stepped toward the kitchen before realizing they were plastic. When I turned back, a stream of water zinged out of a plastic daisy on his lapel; it couldn’t reach me and puddled on the wooden floor of the entryway.

“Where’s Dan?” he asked. “The husband.”

I stared at Jason’s never-ending smile. It trapped me somehow, forcing me to smile back even though I didn’t want to. “He’s around,” I said quickly. “I’ve got to check something. You can set up or whatever in there,” and I gestured toward the living room. Then I pointed the direction Emma had gone, toward the den, and mumbled, “I should see about the food,” then walked purposefully to the kitchen, when really I just had to catch my breath.

The last time I saw Jason was twentyish years ago. We both went to Columbia, and he didn’t return that September after his dad died. Instead, Jason’s former summer boss at the second-run movie theater in the has-been mall rehired him as assistant manager, and he was working every night, pretending he was one step away from enrolling in the community college. He had lost fifteen pounds, his sister had run away twice, and his mom was back to putting down a couple of bottles of white wine over dinner. At night, after reconciling the cash and locking the safe, Jason’s job basically was sitting in the lobby until the movies were over, hoping that no one knifed anyone on their way out. That’s when he’d call me. I wanted to hear from him, but this was back before cell phones, so I had to stick around my phone waiting for him to call, which meant I couldn’t be anywhere else, like a party or a bar or a study group or anywhere that wasn’t the studio apartment I shared with another girl and her musician boyfriend. Every night Jason had a new plan: stand-up, bartending, acting, security guard, deep-cover CIA operative, bread baker, long-haul truck driving, answering mail for the White House, opening a store that sold expensive surfer clothes to Georgetown students. “I could do that, couldn’t I?” he’d repeat, “don’t you think I’d be good at that?” until I agreed: “I know you could, Bear.” It was like a bedtime story he needed every night. I felt sorry for him, and it occurred to me that feeling sorry for a guy was not a good enough reason to date him.

I met Dan at a party; he was down from Boston visiting his brother, and I was in the kitchen, getting water, when my elbow knocked a beer bottle off the counter, and Dan’s hand shot out and caught it before it hit the floor. “My God,” I gasped. “How’d you do that?”

“Reflex,” he said. “Former hockey goalie never forgets.” Later, I appreciated that during our conversation he didn’t drop in any of his stats about his shutouts playing for Boston College or the infamous overtime game in the NCAA tournament or BC’s trip to the Frozen Four or how back in Boston, among a certain college hockey-obsessed set, he was a god. Mostly we talked about life in Northern Virginia, where his parents had moved from Connecticut: the random things we both liked—chili dogs at the Vienna Inn, and lying back in the dewy grass at Gravelly Point Park as planes roared down into National Airport, and watching the water churn at Great Falls after a big rain. He made me homesick in a good way, as if before I met him, I’d never noticed how amazing my life was. The next weekend I took Amtrak up to visit him at grad school, which meant I missed three nights in a row of Jason’s phone calls.

The week after that, I rode the train down to Washington and went to Jason’s movie theater to tell him that we were breaking up. Jason said he didn’t blame me, which made me feel awful.

“I see it,” he said. “I’m a mess. No one would marry me.”

sex, lies, and videotape was playing, and something by Woody Allen, and we were eating way too much cold popcorn because our hands needed something to do. We sat up on the ticket counter, staying long after the shows ended and the customers were gone, staying even after the cleaning people arrived with their blaring boom boxes.

Garish posters for movies I’d already seen hung in the lobby, and I stared at them as we hashed it all out—how happy we used to be, how he knew he’d never meet anyone so perfect, so beautiful and sexy. “Don’t you like being loved?” he kept asking me.

I was afraid Jason would bring up his father’s suicide, but he didn’t. Mr. Phillips had hung himself in the garage in August.

Jason promised that he’d be there for me if it didn’t work out with Dan—he had weaseled out the name and kept repeating it in a snaky voice like a car salesman, like there were perpetual quotation marks around the single syllable—“if for whatever reason ‘Dan’ gets the heave-ho, then you know, Kathy, that I’ll take you back, no questions asked, even if you and ‘Dan’ end up sleeping together.”

Too late, I thought.

Also, I thought: Get mad, you stupid fucking asshole, what the fuck is wrong with you? But I didn’t say that because I was breaking up with him, so why was I angry?

Finally, I said I had to leave for real. I was tired; I was staying with my friend who needed her car to get to work in the morning—the things I’d been saying all along, trying to escape—and he nodded as if he understood, giving my head and my shoulder uncoordinated, floppy pats that irritated me.

I leaned away, eyeing the glass door that led to the safety of the empty mall corridor, and he spoke with the first quiver of outrage: “We were supposed to be forever, us,” and I said, “I’m so sorry,” for like the nine hundredth time that night, and he said, “When this guy, ‘Dan’—when ‘Dan’ deserts you—tell me. I’ll never stop waiting for you. Never. As long as it takes.”

I murmured, “I know,” and it was funny: I did know. And it was funny, too, that knowing this was the exact thing that made it easy for me to leave Jason. It was awkward and embarrassing to be loved intensely. I was twenty-two. I wasn’t worth all this; no one was. Wuthering Heights was a made-up story. I expected Dan would desert me, maybe even soon, but, yeah. I loved Dan, I did.

I ignored Jason’s outstretched arms, begging one-last-hug-please. I jumped down off the ticket counter and so did Jason. I walked toward the glass double doors at the front of the lobby, yanked the handle and listened to the rattle of the bolt. I pushed and rattled while Jason—key ring looped around one finger—stood behind the ticket counter, unmoving. Finally, I had to say, “Let me out.”

“Maybe I won’t.”

But he walked over, moving slowly, as if not feeling his feet against the plaid carpet, the way a ghost might lazily float toward you. Then he abruptly lunged forward hard, his shoulder slamming the door and crushing through the glass, which shattered into a million tiny pieces. Strangely, he didn’t seem to be cut because it was tempered safety glass, which I didn’t know could be broken like that, and so there he was, angry, which was what I had thought I wanted. I carefully stepped through the doorframe, listening to my feet crunch those glittering shards, sparkling like sun speckles on water, keeping my eyes straight ahead so I wouldn’t see Jason sprawled on the mall floor amidst that pretty glass. So I wouldn’t catch his gaze, which I knew would be bold and fierce, certain he’d proven something important.

I called Dan that night and said everything went fine. He didn’t ask for details. Already the life with Jason felt half-erased, part of the past you don’t talk about because now you believe you’re a different person, and it’s awkward remembering who you used to be.

That was the last time I saw Jason Phillips. I didn’t think of him much until after Dan died, and those words knocked in my head during loose scraps of night: I’ll never stop waiting for you, he had said. We were supposed to be forever. Overwrought and melodramatic, the desperate and creepy yearning of a dopey kid.

But now there was a clown in my house.

A little experiment.

I was in the way in the kitchen, where the chef-jacketed whirlwinds were too well trained to demand I get the hell out, so I continued down the hall to the den to check on Emma. She was slouched so deeply into the leather couch that her body was virtually parallel to the floor, her booted legs extending onto the rug. The boots looked too big for her feet. Mascara and blue eyeliner smeared the rims of her eyes, and I decided to save that fight for another time. Men and women in navy suits cackled on the TV.

“Are you thinking about Dad?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“So I guess you’re interested in the pros and cons of a balanced budget amendment?” My laugh sounded fake and untrustworthy.

“It’s a judicial appointment,” and she started to parrot back one of the bombastic experts, but I interrupted:

“You should talk to me about how you’re feeling.”

Instead, she said, “Who’s that clown?”

“Slappy,” I said.

“I mean, who is he? Why’s there a clown in our house?” She lifted the remote and clicked the TV to mute. The experts looked misplaced now, so terribly worked up but silent. “Today?” She stared straight ahead at the noiseless argument. “Why is there a clown in our house today?”

“I thought it would be fun.” My false voice, my artificial cheer. “He won’t be here forever,” I added, noticing my curious word choice, forever.

“Are you thinking about Dad?” she asked, an accusation. At the same time, she clicked the remote again, so the sound jumped back into the room. She clicked again and again, the voices growing louder, louder, and they drowned out my answer:

“Always,” I said. “Of course.”

She swished one hand in a “get out” motion and closed her eyes. Smears of violet and gray eye shadow made her appear bruised and tired. I felt sad for my daughter. Also, apprehensive about being in this room—Dan’s den—with her right now, so I backed out of the doorway.

 

Slappy had moved to the living room, now wearing his clown shoes and sporting a purple hat that looked like an upside-down flowerpot. He stood in front of a line of photos on a credenza: Emma as a baby, Emma graduating from kindergarten, Emma sitting on Santa’s lap, Emma dressed as a black cat for Halloween. I hadn’t thought about how we’d stopped updating the framed photos. We were too lazy to print them off, so anything half-current remained trapped somewhere in the computer. Though, really, Dan had been the one who enjoyed messing around with the camera. Me now taking the pictures seemed depressing.

I cleared my throat so Jason would know I was watching him, but he didn’t turn away from the pictures, and he didn’t speak.

“My husband is dead,” I said. “Dan is dead.”

I didn’t know what I expected Jason to say or do; I guess I expected him to be like most people and stumble through some cliché of consolation, or at least tell me he was sorry, but he said, “You’re wearing a ring.”

“It was my grandmother’s,” I said. “I suppose I like it. Not wearing it would be weird.”

“I never got married,” he said. He lifted his bicycle horn and squeezed it—toot toot—as he turned to face me.

There was a pause, and I self-consciously twisted my ring, sliding the emerald around to my palm. She had been married to another man before marrying my grandfather. I always wondered what that man’s family thought about her; I didn’t remember his name, if I had even known it. He worked in the mines in Pennsylvania, but my grandmother divorced him because he drank too much, and then she moved to Philadelphia and met my grandfather on a streetcar. “Handsome and rich,” she used to tell me. “Easy to love.”

Jason said, “That’s got to be shitty for your daughter.”

“And me,” I said.

“You could’ve just called,” he said. “Emailed. That’s cheaper than hiring me.”

“Especially with that two-hour minimum,” I joked.

“Plus travel time,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “I didn’t even try negotiating down. I hope you appreciate that.” We chuckled awkwardly. The minutes felt complicated and long.

Then he said, “Everything you think you remember was a long time ago.” His white face was placid, smiling. For a confusing moment, I found myself thinking about Dan’s motionless face in the casket. Eyes closed. Stiff lips. Fake, ruddy cheeks. Too many pores on his nose. I thought I’d be afraid to touch his body, but I wasn’t; I liked letting my hand rest on top of his chest as I greeted people. Even so, I told Emma not to look, but I think she did when I was in the bathroom. I remembered kissing Dan’s stony face when I was alone with him for the last time. Everyone was heading to the parking lot, and the funeral home people hovered outside the room, ready to lock up the box. I thought it would be like a fairy tale, my final kiss bringing him back to life, but no, it wasn’t. It wasn’t.

“Aren’t you a clown?” I asked. “Aren’t you supposed to make me laugh?”

He raised one hand to the side of his head and twisted his fingers, curving them into a fist, which he then opened to a flat palm, revealing a brown egg. I noticed an expiration date stamped on the end in red ink: the same brand of organic, cage-free eggs I bought.

I shook my head. “That’s not funny,” I said desperately.

“It is if I drop it,” and he tilted his palm so the egg rolled and fell to the hardwood floor.

“Damn it, no,” I said, but the egg bounced neatly upward, and he caught it in the same hand.

“Maybe a tiny bit funny?” he asked.

“Didn’t you hear me?” I asked. “He’s dead. He died.” I’d spoken the words a trillion sad times.

“I have my own life,” he said. “This isn’t twenty years ago.”

I shook my head impatiently, my hair whipping against my cheeks. “I know, I know.” I watched him. He had to think I was still beautiful. He had to say so. When he didn’t, I felt tears bulge in my eyes, so I looked aside and spoke in a stiff voice: “You should just leave. This is a mistake. You have my credit card number, so just charge me, travel time and all. Give yourself a big fat tip.”

He stepped closer, his big clown shoes slapping the floor, and tugged me into a floppy hug; his jacket was soft and fragrant, like the fabric of an old quilt. I accidentally stepped on the toe of one of his shoes, and it squished down, flat and empty.

Men hugged differently. Better. Stronger.

The derisive cough of a miserable teenager. “Grandma just pulled up,” Emma said from the entryway. “So maybe stop hugging your pathetic clown for a minute.”

I stepped away from Jason, from Slappy, from this man, and swiped at my teary eyes with my forefingers, the tips of which darkened from smudged mascara. My cheeks felt hot, embarrassed, as if I’d been caught doing something naughty, and I pressed my icy palms to my face. Jason looked precisely the same: white and smiling. He blinked a few times, but then everyone blinks. I couldn’t see what he might be thinking. He pitied me. He loved me.

“Emma,” I said. I thought some sort of explanation might appear, but all I could say was her name. She looked so much like her father. Everyone said so. That was supposed to be something to love about her. Maybe she saw it too, that close resemblance, and secretly hated it the way I did. Maybe that was why all the makeup lately. Or maybe she was just being a thirteen-year-old.

The doorbell rang, and Emma spun around, off to open the door. The click of the lock, the creak of the hinges, “Grandma!” I used to rate that level of enthusiasm from Emma, but not lately. The murmur of birthday greetings, comments about the party, the rustle of a gift bag exchanging hands.

“Your mom never liked me much, did she?” Jason asked.

“She warned me you were overwrought,” I said.

“I’ll hide,” and he stepped behind a floor lamp, crouching to align his head with the shade.

I finally laughed.

“Aren’t you too old for clowns?” I heard my mother ask Emma.

“Why do people always say that?” Jason stage-whispered as he crooked his head sideways. “So hurtful.” He pushed his lips into a frowny face, but with that smile in the way, he only succeeded in looking misshapen. “Let’s run away together,” he said casually.

I laughed again, imagining the two of us crammed into a tiny clown car, trailing plastic daisies, tossing rubber eggs at pedestrians, driving into a sunset as bright and pure as a clown’s red nose.

“No one ever knows when I’m serious,” he said. That pasted smile.

Emma’s squeal: “I love it! I have to show Mom!”

“Shh . . . my mom’s coming!” I was giddy, back in high school, the two of us pressed too close on the couch downstairs, the TV turned high to camouflage muffled zippers and panting. That groaning floorboard overhead and the race to get situated, staring at the cop show so the snooping parent suspected nothing.

Emma and my mother appeared in the doorway, Emma extending her wrist, now encircled by a loose sparkly diamond bracelet that looked significantly too grown-up for a thirteen-year-old girl who lost things or lent them to friends who lost them. (My red cashmere scarf.)

“Look!” she exclaimed, tilting her wrist to make the stones catch the light. “It’s so fabulous!” It was a bracelet a lover would buy, inappropriate for a little girl—a lover or a cheating husband. Someone wanting—needing—to splurge.

“Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty fancy.” Petal-shaped marquise diamonds arranged like flowers, a shimmering chain of daisies. Surely they weren’t real. I caught my mother’s eye and gave the world’s tiniest frown. She still wore her fur coat and that irritated me—Jason seeing it, that Emma hadn’t offered to hang it up.

“It’s from Tiffany,” Emma said.

“Maybe Grandma should have talked to me first,” I said. “Maybe Grandma should have waited until you were older before giving you such an expensive gift.”

My mother said, “Why wait?” She said it like I would be afraid to answer back after hearing that. She said it like any fool would know to give an extravagant gift to a girl whose father had died. She said it like Emma would require extravagant gifts for the rest of her life. She spoke as if all of this was obvious to anyone.

I glanced at Jason, who gave an exaggerated clown shrug, shoulders rising to his ears, hands popping palm-up. Apparently, my mother hadn’t recognized him, and why would she? He wasn’t supposed to be here. It was supposed to be Dan. If Dan were here, there would be no diamonds and no clowns. There would be bacon and sausage and ham.

I forced a smile, reached out to touch Emma’s wrist so I could look more closely at the bracelet. Emma’s skin felt warm, and she twisted free of my grasp. “It’s beautiful,” I said, because I had to say something and there was nothing to say. She knew I wouldn’t take it away from her or forbid her to wear it.

“There’s a surprise for you,” Emma said.

Something about the way she looked at my mother and the way Slappy grabbed his toy horn and beeped it twice blasted a pit deep into my stomach. The incessant smell of bacon. The thought of a dozen family members roaming the house, my lifeless smile what they wanted to see because as long as there was a smile frozen onto my face, we could all agree that everything was fine.

“That’s why I’m here early,” my mother said. “To give this to you in private.” She opened her purse and pulled out not a box from Tiffany but a crumpled, white, business-size envelope. She held it out to me. Her hands were steady.

I knew I didn’t want this.

There was a moment where I stood there, doing nothing, forgetting to breathe.

“Take it,” my mother finally said, and she reached for my limp hand, lifting it up to set the sealed envelope into my palm. My fingers automatically folded, holding the envelope, which was exceedingly light, as if what was contained inside barely existed.

“Mom, you’re being weird,” Emma said.

My mother seemed suddenly to notice Slappy. “My God,” she said. “There’s actually a clown.”

He bowed to her, then spun and dropped his pants to moon her with a pair of orange and purple polka dot underwear. Then back around, extending his hand for a handshake, which my mother reluctantly gave, Slappy pumping her arm, holding tight as she struggled to release her hand from his grip.

“This isn’t funny,” my mother said.

“I don’t want this,” I said.

“I think you’ll want it when you see what it is,” my mother said.

I shook my head, hard, repeatedly. My eyes rattled in their sockets, though that couldn’t technically be true; I just wanted them to. If I kept shaking, none of this would be happening. Everything blurred, and I had to stop.

“Mom.” Emma put her hands on her hips, disgusted, but—I suspected—enjoying the sensation of the bracelet sliding along her wrist.

“I don’t want this,” I repeated.

“The lady says no,” Slappy said, sounding not like a clown but like an overwrought high school boy. He snatched the envelope from me and tucked it into a polka dot pocket. He smiled, first at my mother, then at me. He seemed proud of himself, as if pleased at how quickly everything had been solved.

I couldn’t smile back. I had understood immediately what was in the envelope.

“Good Lord,” my mother sputtered. “That’s Dan’s wedding ring. What’s the matter with you?”

“I told you I didn’t want it,” I said. “I wanted him buried with it on.” I hated that decision the most of all of the decisions I had hated making. I didn’t know until the morning of the funeral. That last kiss. That was when I decided. He would be gone, but maybe I would feel he was still married to me because he was wearing his ring.

“I knew you’d change your mind,” she said. “So I told them at the funeral home to remove it before . . . before. Because I knew you’d change your mind.”

“Oh my God, Mom,” Emma said. “Of course you want Dad’s wedding ring. What do you mean, you didn’t keep it?”

“He died?” Jason asked. “For real? I thought you were messing with me.”

“Last April,” I said.

“April tenth,” Emma said. Her voice was cold and prim.

Jason slid his hand in the pocket and I half-hoped for another bouquet, but it was the envelope he withdrew. I silently took it from him. I didn’t have to rip it open to see the ring—a simple gold band, about a quarter-inch wide, engraved with the date of our wedding, 3-1-92. Anniversary, birthday, the day we met, the day he died . . . these numbers were locked in my head, burial or not.

Emma stretched out her arm, the one wearing the bracelet, and I placed the envelope in her hand. She clutched it to her chest. We were heading down a rocky path, the two of us, and I had no idea how we would find the end, or whether we were even traveling the same direction or to a shared destination. My mother, tears turning her eyes shiny, folded Emma into a hug, stroking her back, rubbing the fuzzy sweater.

I envied the easy comfort of the gesture, both the giving and the receiving. That’s what it seemed I would never have again.

I glanced at Slappy the Clown. “You were supposed to make me laugh,” I said. “It’s my birthday.”

“They teach you in clowning school that nothing is really all that funny,” Slappy said. “Not in real life anyway.” That painted-on smile, that fake smile. I imagined Jason staring at himself in the bathroom mirror this morning, watching as he disappeared: sponging layers of white across the planes of his face and neck; the silky caress of the powder puff, its pale cloud gently dissipating; and, always saved for last, the slow brushstrokes of deep and startling red, the immense care needed—every time—to get that smile exactly right.

THE LITTLE ONES WEARY

Hilde has come to love the garden. She tries to recall the name of each plant as Aunt Vivian has taught her—rhododendron and pampas grass and wisteria tree, the one with the fuzzy green pods, hard-candy seeds inside. At midday, she hides under the domed trellis of scuppernong vine at the edge of the yard, looks out through a gap in the hedge and sees the city skyline across the sound, metal and gray stone, the old world from which her parents sent her, and which she is already starting to forget. There the castle sits, far off. It blows from its tower a train of white clouds.

Hilde sits and watches the castle while her aunt works in the yard. She dreams of the army that occupies it, the wizard responsible for the cloud. She knows they must be watching her the way that she watches them, so she calls to her aunt, “I’m protecting you from the invasion. This is our lookout. You’re safe now.”

“Oh good,” says Aunt Vivian. “I was worried about that invasion.”

“Me too,” says Hilde, but it is not long before she finds herself sharing the lookout post with another occupant.

It’s a spider. She’s seen spiders before—the gray-brown ones that hide in the cracks in the molding—but this is a beastly, primordial hunter-spider, its abdomen a bright tiger stripe of black and white and yellow, its legs as shiny as the teeth of a comb. It sits very still, and when Hilde twangs its web with her finger, it comes alive and ticks its prickly legs into the leaves above her head.

Hilde peers out the other side of the trellis where she can see her aunt on her knees in the vegetable patch, picking squash and placing them into a plastic grocery bag. “It isn’t supposed to be in here,” she says.

“What’s that?” says Aunt Vivian.

“A spider. It’s a big spider in my lookout tower.” She waits for her aunt’s response. Really, what she would like is for Aunt Vivian to come and eject the spider, since Hilde is too afraid to touch it herself. But she has too much pride to ask.

“Come look at it now,” she demands.

“I’ve seen plenty of those before,” says her aunt. “Give it space. It’s got as much right to be in the garden as you do.”

Aunt Vivian picks up her bag of vegetables and looks toward the vine trellis. In the sunlight, her skin is shining and smooth like the seeds in the wisteria pods, though Hilde, who knows that some adults are older than others, understands now that Aunt Vivian is probably the oldest person she knows.

“Come out of there,” Aunt Vivian says. “It’s time to come in.”

Hilde crouches down and presses her face into the grass, lets loose a muted scream.

“No, ma’am,” says her aunt. “I’ll have none of that.”

“I’m guarding my fort.”

“What fort? This garden? This is my fort. Get out of there now before something bites you. Lots of calamine tonight, and aloe—you’re already sunburned to a crisp, I’m sure.”

The sun bears down razorlike through the leaves of the vine, and Hilde knows the hours of boredom that await her inside. She screams until darkness edges in around her eyeballs and Aunt Vivian comes to retrieve her by the arm. Vivian does not indulge her niece’s bids for power, not even when they are purely imaginative. She can see the castle too, far, far across the water, but for her it holds no wonder, and for the rest of the afternoon, she relegates the girl’s play to the stuffy rooms of the house.

      

The cloud-billowing structure across the sound is not a castle at all. The man in the yellow plastic suit is the one who tells her. He comes by a couple days later.

Hilde’s alone in the front yard when this happens. Aunt Vivian has disappeared behind the carport to get a trowel, complaining about the dandelions and the crabgrass, demon plants of insidious variety, and then Hilde sees him. She’s not sure if he even is a man, maybe he isn’t, because the suit is not like anything she’s seen before. It crinkles loudly and covers all of him, even his face, which she can only half see through the tinted plastic square that shields him. But because he has a face, and because he’s walking a bicycle along the sidewalk in front of their house, she realizes he must have chosen to wear the suit in the same way Aunt Vivian chooses to wear denim.

“What are you doing?” she asks. “Why are you wearing that?”

The man stops and turns toward her. He tilts the bike against the chainlink fence, leans in. “What’s that?” he asks, his voice muffled and echoey inside the hollow chamber of his suit.

Why,” Hilde asks, “are you wearing that?”

“Safety,” he says. He gestures broadly toward the sound. “That way, the power plant. You seen it, over there ’cross the water?”

Hilde stares at where he’s pointing. Now she knows for sure that it isn’t a castle, but for the man in the suit, she pretends she never thought it in the first place.

“Right,” she says. “That power plant.”

“That there’s a nuclear plant,” he says. “It leaking. So I go to my house and lock the door and stay in, but I can’t stay in forever. Can’t spend my whole life in my living room with the walls covered in plastic, no sir, but I still do what I can to keep my insides from boiling. This bike, can’t ride it no more when I wear this thing, so I’m dropping it off at a friend’s place.”

He speaks so fervently that a patch of condensation blooms on the plastic shield near his mouth. Hilde hugs her stomach and feels nauseated.

“What you doin’ at Vivi’s place, little girl?” the man asks.

Hilde doesn’t answer. She is trying not to cry—crying in front of a stranger, very embarrassing—but the man notices.

“What’s wrong with you? Eh? Can’t you speak?”

Aunt Vivian returns. She lets out a shout when she sees the man in the plastic suit, and Hilde, not wanting her aunt to see her tears, pulls her head inside the collar of her dress like a tortoise.

“Who is that? Who the hell are you?”

The man in the suit waves his arm above his head. “Just old Mott, that’s all!”

Aunt Vivian looks baffled, but she is angry now, not frightened.

“What are you doing? Why are you wearing that? Are you terrifying this child?”

“It’s for the nuclear plant, Vivi. Ain’t you heard? You must not’ve heard, being out in the yard like normal. There is a plague on this land.”

“I didn’t hear a word of that,” Aunt Vivian says. “I didn’t hear a word because you have plastic over your whole head. Mott, go home. You’ve lost your mind.”

Mott, in his crinkling yellow suit, takes up his bike and continues on down the sidewalk. Hilde emerges from her dress and watches him through a film of tears, feeling the heat of shame in her neck and ears.

“Don’t listen to him,” Aunt Vivian says. She puts a warm, dry hand on each of Hilde’s shoulders. “He’s a rare bird.”

      

All birds are rare now, but this was not always the case. When she was with her parents, Hilde lived up on the nineteenth floor of a huge gray building, and she used to watch for them from the living room window, black specks against a vast creamsicle sky. She has a memory of seeing birds by the hundreds, flickering checkmarks of birds, but maybe that’s a dream she had. Maybe this was a dream also: lying with her back against the carpet, something dripping in the back of her throat that is salty like blood. She stares at the sky. There’s one—far up. Or maybe an airplane.

Now at Aunt Vivian’s place, following her encounter with Mott, Hilde goes to the kitchen, finds the plastic wrap in one of the drawers, and takes it into the back bedroom. She has trussed up all but the top part of her head by the time her aunt finds her, which gets the woman screaming:

“You stupid child! You’ll suffocate yourself!”

Hilde is made mute by the plastic over her mouth, otherwise she would explain that she has scissors at the ready to cut the eyeholes and mouth holes as needed. But Aunt Vivian destroys her work in a fury. Now Hilde’s protective suit lies about her feet like tattered snakeskin, and she explodes in a fit.

An hour later, when Aunt Vivian comes to retrieve her for supper, Hilde pretends to be dead. Her aunt takes her by the ankles and hauls her a few inches, wheelbarrow-style, but Hilde stays limp, keeps her eyes closed.

“Fine,” Aunt Vivian says. “Go hungry.” She retreats to the kitchen alone.

 

Mott returns around noon the next day, a yellow oversized moonwalker. This time he is carrying a weed eater, and he sets to hacking up the crabgrass that Aunt Vivian hadn’t finished off the day before. Hilde pulls back the linen curtain to watch him as her aunt leans in over her shoulder.

“Surely he can’t see a damn thing,” Vivian says under her breath. “He’ll cut himself to pieces with that machine.”

But Mott is surprisingly deft, and once he has finished, he knocks on the front door and delivers six cans barbecued beans, five cans peaches in sweet syrup, a jar of pickled okra, peas, green beans, beets, Spam, and sweet potatoes (three cans apiece), a plastic container of flour, a bottle of gin, and a loaf of bread he baked himself, wrapped in tinfoil. All this he had been keeping in his own pantry, lined in plastic.

“You and the child shouldn’t eat those veggies from the garden,” he says. “It’s all good as poisoned.”

“What?” says Vivian. “Mott, I swear, I can’t hear you in that costume.”

Mott bows. His bag also contains several lengths of plastic tarp and a roll of duct tape. He goes around sealing the plastic over the windows and doorways of the kitchen and living room, and Hilde is amazed that Aunt Vivian doesn’t stop him. She stands tiredly with her arms folded, and at one point, she mutters under her breath: “Good God. All these theatrics.” But she allows Mott to have run of her place, and when the area is sealed to his liking, he finally unzips his suit.

He is maybe Aunt Vivian’s age, maybe younger, his bald scalp bright and red, dripping with sweat.

“You think all this really works?” Vivian asks.

“I try to limit my exposure best I can. You should too. You should come live with me in my bunker, I got a system worked out.”

She sighs, but Hilde, who first believed that her aunt didn’t like Mott, can now plainly see that she actually does, that they have been friends a long time and that this is just one of the things Mott does. Hilde sits in the current of an oscillating fan while they chat—about mutual acquaintances, about the scorching summer weather. And because it’s lunchtime, Mott heats up a can of the beans and fries some Spam for them. Hilde doesn’t eat the Spam, picks a little at the beans.

“She never eats much,” says Vivian.

“Pale as a glowworm, ain’t she,” says Mott. “You glow in the dark?”

Hilde shakes her head.

“She’s my grandniece,” Aunt Vivian says. “She’s visiting from the city.”

“A grandniece,” says Mott, as if this is an accomplishment on Hilde’s part. “So you from the city. How you like it out here in the sticks?”

She shrugs, unusually self-conscious. Aunt Vivian doesn’t have guests often. A stretch of marsh separates her house from any neighbors, and Hilde is not allowed to explore anywhere on her own. In midafternoon, when the weather is too hot to be out in the yard, the house is deathly quiet. While Aunt Vivian sits at the kitchen table and smokes her cigarettes, Hilde is overcome with lethargy, rolls on the carpet like a beached fish. Mott broke all that, the monotonous spell.

He watches her, mistakes her shyness for fear. “I don’t do all this just to scare you,” he says, gesturing around at the plastic on the windows. “It’s safer out here than it is in the city, that’s for sure. But you look old enough to know that the world’s filled with evil forces. Invisible forces. You’re not really safe anywhere.”

Mott,” Aunt Vivian snaps. “Suit or no suit, I will throw you out in the road.”

But Hilde feels that Mott is right. “The invasion,” she says. “The spider is watching us for the invasion.”

“What spider?” Mott asks. “What invasion?”

Vivian waves her hand. “It’s just something she’s got in her head now.”

After lunch, he puts the suit back on, takes down the plastic, and she leads him out into the yard to show him. Now it is not just one spider they see, but five of various sizes, all occupying large webs in the scuppernong vine. Hilde can no longer even enter its shade without a spider blocking her way.

“Good Lord,” Mott says. “They really are invading. It’s a bad sign, I tell you. Look at this one—I’ve never seen them that big before.”

“Me either,” says Hilde. She thinks the big spider is one she saw three days ago, that it has since grown in size. She is part pleased that Mott is impressed, part genuinely frightened. Now she is more certain than ever that the spiders are infiltrators, that their dark power comes from the fortress over the water.

Mott calls toward the house: “Vivi, come see this!” But Aunt Vivian stays where she is, standing on the back stoop with a cigarette.

      

Later, once Mott has left and the plastic is taken down, Hilde vomits what little lunch she ate onto the carpet in the back bedroom. She doesn’t want her aunt to see that she’s gotten sick again, so she cleans it up with a hand towel, throws it in the trash.

      

A few days after lunch with Mott, Hilde comes down with a fever. She begins to spend hours lying on the back porch with her cheek pressed against the tile floor, staring out through the screen while Aunt Vivian works in the garden. She is running into the spiders too, and every once in a while, when she makes a sharp turn, she jumps back from a too-close encounter. They’ve formed their webs all along the hedge, in the tomato plants, in between the okra stalks, draped over the wheelbarrow, which she keeps propped up against the shed. The females have already laid egg sacs, some as large as Ping-Pong balls. The invasion has truly begun.

Whenever Aunt Vivian comes back inside, she leans down and rubs Hilde’s back. “Let’s clean you up, you’re getting all greasy.” And she leads her down the hall to give her a salt bath and put her to bed early. Hilde eats what she can keep down—cereal or crackers with a glass of ginger ale—and falls dead asleep.

It’s on a particularly stuffy night that the voices wake her up.

At first, she believes she’s paralyzed, on fire. It takes great strength for her to shove the quilt off her chest, but then she rolls out of bed, flops onto the floor, and, free of weight, the feeling comes back in her limbs. She slides her way across the carpet on her back, using her feet to push herself along, and when she gets to the door of her room, she tilts her head back and sees the end of the hall is sealed off in plastic. Mott is here again. He and Aunt Vivian are talking.

Hilde rolls over onto her stomach and crawls forward until she reaches the plastic, which is moving ghostlike in the air of the fan. There’s a hole in it, near the bottom, and looking out she can see Aunt Vivian at the kitchen table, crushing cigarettes into her ashtray. From Hilde’s viewpoint, they resemble a crumpled, ashen little skyline.

“Ugh. They’re everywhere this year,” her aunt says. “Can’t walk two feet without running into ’em.”

“You know it’s ’cause there ain’t no birds,” says Mott. “Birds die. Bugs come out. Spiders get fat off the bugs. No competition.”

Vivian lights up another cigarette. “Thank you, Mr. Ecology.”

“You know they been lying for years about how that thing affects us. Go to the hospital, they lie there too. It leaks, they evacuate everyone within a mile, to everyone else they say, ‘Stay in your homes,’ and we do, we’re culpable. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. That’s upon us, only it’s not God that done it. We brought it all on ourselves.”

Her aunt is quiet a moment. “You don’t know it’s the plant, Mott. Could be other stuff. Could be cars, could be, what, pesticides, herbicides. You just think it’s the plant ’cause you see it out there on the horizon, but in truth you might be gettin’ it just as well from the cans you eat out of.”

Mott doesn’t reply at first. Then he starts up, his voice quick and angry: “You don’t even got a TV, Vivi, or a damn radio. You got no way to know—”

“According to you,” she snaps, “they just spin lies, so why bother?”

His side of the kitchen table goes dark and sullen.

“Even if it is the plant,” she continues, breathing smoke from her nostrils, “that ain’t what’s wrong with the girl like you think. She always get sick, get better, get sick again. Don’t know what it is. My sister was the same way. It’s a curse. Cursed genes.”

“They tell you that at the hospital?”

“Oh, get off the goddamn hospital, will you? I’m taking her over there if the fever gets any worse.”

“You ain’t got a driver’s license anymore.”

“I can pretend I do for a little while.”

“What about her parents?”

Vivian sighs. She crushes out her cigarette and lights another. “They don’t know what to do. They children themselves.”

This time, they both fall silent, and when the two of them pick up the conversation again, they begin to talk about money, or want of it. Hilde’s mind clouds and drifts away. She’s awakened when her aunt tears down the plastic from the doorway and stumbles over her body.

“Jesus, girl!”

Hilde opens one eye. Mott is standing in the kitchen, clothed in his yellow suit again. When his muffled voice speaks, Hilde hears it, though Vivian does not:

“The only thing that’d help this child is to take her away from here.”

Hilde covers her sweaty face as Aunt Vivian picks her up. She can’t remember the hospital, but bright lights, the smell of latex and alcohol—these sensations scare her.

     

In the morning, Hilde’s fever has broken. She watches from the porch as Aunt Vivian turns her attention to the spiders. She doesn’t kill them—as bug-eaters, they’re friends of the gardener after all—but their sheer number has clearly made her uneasy. She tears down some of the larger webs with a rake in the hope that they’ll move elsewhere. By the afternoon, they have all rebuilt, and seem to have multiplied.

      

Though she’s gotten a little better, Hilde’s head is still bleary, and she stays inside on most days. Vivian keeps saying she hopes it will rain to cool things off, and Hilde imagines all the spiders getting washed from their webs in streams, carried out to the sound with their legs kicking.

But the rain never comes, the heat carries on, and Hilde struggles to stay awake. Once, in the midst of a heavy nap, she wakens to find Mott, in his suit, on the other side of her window, taping plastic over it. He waves at her and then continues his task until the world outside becomes blockaded in an opaque film. All she can see of Mott now is his shadow.

Hilde assumes that Mott is doing this with Aunt Vivian’s permission, but when she wanders down the hall to the living room, her aunt is reading the paper in the easy chair as if nothing is going on.

“Mott’s out there,” Hilde says. “He’s taping our windows.”

Aunt Vivian looks up. “He’s what?”

From the yard, Mott sees them and waves, but Aunt Vivian shakes her head, shouting, “No, sir! I won’t play this game with you! I said no!” She slams the door as she goes out, and Hilde crawls onto the back of the sofa so she can watch their confrontation from the window. Her aunt yells at Mott, pointing to the plastic tarp, slicing the air with the edge of her hand. Mott holds out his arms at first, sheepish, but then he starts yelling back, gesticulating wildly in the direction of the power plant. Aunt Vivian stands there a moment, arms folded. She can’t understand him. She loses her patience. It happens in an instant, so fast that Hilde has to catch her breath; Vivian reaches up, grabs the hood of Mott’s suit, and rips it open. Mott crouches down as if being beaten, his face in agony, and Hilde is sad to see that his head looks almost shriveled, tiny in comparison to the cumbersome yellow body. She can read the words on his mouth—“What’ve you done? What the hell have you done?”—and when he straightens up again, he shoves Vivian so hard that she stumbles back and falls in the driveway. He flees down the road. His wounded suit flaps in the air.

 

Later, as Vivian cleans the grit from a scrape on her palm, Hilde sits curled up in the kitchen chair. She fights back a tremble brought on by the smell of peroxide and Band-Aids, asking quietly, “Why’d Mott push you?”

“Because,” says her aunt, “he wants to do something he thinks will make the house safe, and I won’t let him do it.”

“Why not?”

“Because he ain’t in his right mind, that’s why.”

Hilde doesn’t know what this means. Is there a wrong mind? A left mind? “But will it make the house safe,” she asks, “what he wants to do?”

“I doubt it.”

“But it could, maybe?”

Vivian looks up at the child, curled in the chair like a pale, wide-eyed shrimp. She can recall a time before the plant, but even then the streams ran with a film and there was always an orange haze, which hung over the city, even when she was a little girl. When the plant arrived, it became the neighborhood devil, as if it had destroyed what was once pristine. But Vivian knows better and she will not leave, doesn’t have the will or money to do so anyway. Each day she tends her garden, and that will be the end of it.

“It’s hard to explain,” she tells Hilde, and lays a bandage over her scrape.

      

In the middle of the night, Hilde can tell that her face is getting hot again, that her stomach is fighting against what little she ate for supper. The whine of a siren is what wakes her, far off, and when she opens her eyes, she sees that someone has lifted up the window. A breeze comes in, carrying the sound with it. Then Hilde squints and focuses on the shape at the foot of her bed, can make out the glint of a bald scalp in the shadows.

“Mott,” says Hilde. “Where’s your suit?”

“It’s busted,” he says. “Hilde, sweetheart, you hear that siren?”

“Yes,” she says.

“That’s from the plant. That means bad things. It ain’t safe here. Your aunt, she means well, but she just don’t know, she don’t keep informed. You come with me, all right? I got my house proofed. I bring you there, and Vivi’ll come along too, okay?”

Hilde rubs her eyes with her palms, blinks them clear. Now she can see the features of Mott’s face, alive with fear.

“Okay,” she says.

He hauls her up, and it feels good, the strength of his arms, the oniony smell of his skin. Her father had a similar smell, she thinks, maybe his sweat, but she hasn’t seen him for so long. Maybe she has no parents, only Aunt Vivian and Mott. He carries her out into the open air of the yard. The spiders sit silent in their webs.

They are at the edge of the front yard when the plant’s siren suddenly dies, and they can hear Aunt Vivian screaming. Now the lights are all on in the house, blazing and golden, and she’s at the front door flailing her arms—“Mott! Mott! What are you doing?” Mott begins to run, and Hilde’s world trembles and shudders, and she feels if he lets her go she will fall, not down, but up into the night sky, moonless and black. “Mott, no! Bring her back!”

“It’s okay,” Mott is saying. “It’ll be okay.” But Hilde can hear in his breathless voice that he’s just as scared as she is, and his gait is slowing down, as if he’s no longer sure he’s running in the right direction.

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story JURY OF MATRONS

My mother came from a family of relentless and intransigent women. One of her grandmothers—as Aunt Faye relished telling it—hatcheted saloons alongside Carrie Nation; the other operated the speakeasy where Joe Majczek and Ted Marcinkiewicz allegedly shot a Chicago traffic cop in 1932. (“You’ve probably seen the movie version,” Aunt Faye crowed to friends. “Call Northside 777. June Havoc—you remember June Havoc, don’t you?—has a bit part as my Granny Bess. Not credited, but still!”)  My mother’s mother, Ida, fought alongside the Loyalists in Spain and later guided anti-Vichy partisans over the Pyrenees, albeit with limited success. So when my own mother deposited my bassinet in her aunt’s parlor in Powick Bridge, a fruitless suburb of Hartford, Connecticut, and flew off to liberate Guatemala from Yanquis, she followed well-tread if reckless footsteps, and when she “disappeared” during the worst of that nation’s “White Terror”—a named target of Colonel Arana’s death brigades—the US State Department offered Aunt Faye the diplomatic equivalent of a shrug.

Fast forward fifteen years: that’s a long about way of explaining how I ended up at my grandaunt’s home, a perpetually flummoxed adolescent boy sharing a roof (and a cast-iron clawfoot bathtub) with three inscrutable women, when my mother’s baby sister, Marcella, passed through on route from a halfway house in Springfield to the coast. “I’m going to save the Pregnant Pirette from the soldering iron, so help me,” she announced to Aunt Faye. “And I’m taking Ginny’s kid with me.”

Marcella wore her tawny hair in cornrows tufted with cowry shells; her harem skirt flowed from a belt garnished with artificial daisies—but even in her thirties, our visitor looked too battle-worn for Hippiedom. (Try to picture Mrs. Khrushchev dressed as Bo Derek.)  She dropped a carpetbag lacquered with political pins onto the front porch like a conquistador planting a flag.

“Like hell you are,” replied my grandaunt, arms akimbo in the doorway.

I watched from the foyer. I was an animal carcass, pierced with a pair of bullet holes, at the mercy of two rival huntresses.

 

When I’d first gone to live with Aunt Faye, she was alone in the house. She’d once had a husband, a fellow named Tate, but like most of the men in our family, he’d drifted from history into mist, leaving behind only his surname. (All I knew of my own father, Len Kuritsky, was that he’d asphyxiated on a chicken bone at a music festival in California several weeks after my birth.)  At some point, long before I entered the scene, Aunt Faye had staffed the reference desk at the Powick Bridge Public Library, and pushing seventy, she carried with her an atmosphere of dusty encyclopedias. We had lots of visitors in those days: a klatch of female relations whose precise perch on the family tree wasn’t worth locating. Even Marcella had stayed overnight once, but left in a huff before breakfast, incensed that Aunt Faye had stipulated a separate bed downstairs for her niece’s boyfriend. Four years later, a widowed girlhood friend of my grandaunt’s—the aptly named Edie Coffin—moved permanently into the same chamber. (To this day, I don’t know whether Aunt Faye and “Cousin” Edie were lovers, or had once been lovers, or were merely faithful late-life companions.)  The third female in our estrogen-perfumed Cape Codder, Cindy Jane, arrived only four months before Marcella. She was a genuine cousin—the sixteen-year-old, cashew-shaped, eggplant-hued spawn of two heroin junkies, one of them loosely descended from Granny Bess. Aunt Faye had again opened her doors to the family’s jetsam.   

So that’s how the household stood at the outset of the battle royal. Marcella had just completed a ninety-nine-day stint in the Hampden County lockup for pepper-spraying a guard during protests against expanding an air force base, so she had more than three months of pent-up zeal to launch on behalf of her mission. It was a Saturday in July—a lazy, torrid afternoon—and although we’d been summarily banished to the yard seconds after Marcella’s arrival, both Cindy Jane and I eavesdropped from below the kitchen window. The heavy scent of “Cousin” Edie’s heliotrope and sweet alyssum cloyed our nostrils.

“I’m sorry, dear,” said Aunt Faye. “I am glad to see you’re well—and you’re always welcome in this house, provided you abide by the house rules. That being said, I cannot have you showing up here like the Pied Piper of Hamelin and leading that boy into trouble.”

“Nobody is leading anyone into trouble, Faye. I’m teaching the boy the value of direct action, of bearing witness. Doesn’t it bother you the slightest bit that they’re going to guillotine the Pregnant Pirette on a whim?”

“I doubt they’re doing anything on a whim,” replied Aunt Faye. “In the first place, you act like it’s a human being they’re harming. They’re dismantling a statue, for heaven’s sake. A rusted old iron statue that nobody—at least nobody other than you—gives a slap about. It’s not as though you’re trying to save an ancient redwood or some natural wonder—”

“It’s a feminist icon—”

“Do let me finish, dear. As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s a wise choice they’re making, razing all those blighted motels and creating a preserve. And so too, I might add, does every progressive thinker and environmental scientist in this state.”

“Not every—”   

Almost every one. Your problem, Marcella, if you’d like my unsolicited opinion—and even if you don’t—is that you’re always looking for causes.” Once Aunt Faye dipped into her speak-in-full-paragraphs mode, there was no turning back. “I’m not saying the world is a perfectly just place, but it’s not the gulag, either. Even without a revolution, we have running water, and three solid meals a day, and the right to vote and speak our minds, and to make pests of ourselves in public places. Maybe you could try being thankful for a change. In any event, the bottom line is that you’re welcome to drive down to East Sedley and make a nuisance of yourself all you’d like—get yourself arrested again, if you have your heart set on it—but I have custody of that boy, and he’s not getting wrapped up in your shenanigans.”

Marcella responded with a sigh—almost a groan—that seemingly contained all of the frustrations of Woodstock and Selma and Kent State drawn into one breath. “What planet do you live on, Faye Tate? Do you really believe all that Norman Rockwell shit about the right to speak your mind? Jesus-fucking-Christ!  That statue is a landmark. A piece of my childhood. She was practically my best friend. Have you forgotten how I’d stuff pillows under my nightgown and go down to the beach at night to help her defend our motel from marauders while you and that bald lady friend of yours got sloshed on cocktails?”

“Betty Miniver was not bald; she had alopecia. Nor did either of us ever ‘get sloshed,’ as you call it. That’s simply not what your childhood was like.”

“Maybe you weren’t sober enough to remember.”

“Enough, young lady,” said Aunt Faye. “Now put your bag in the upstairs guest room and I’ll make you some cucumber sandwiches to tide you over until supper.”

Cindy Jane poked my flank and whispered, “Crazy how they’re fighting over you, isn’t it?”

That was before I’d decided whether I found Cindy Jane attractive enough to kiss. “I guess,” I agreed—not too committal.

“You know what? I bet Marcella isn’t your aunt at all,” said Cindy Jane, her warm breath only inches from my neck. “I bet she’s really your mother.”

 

Aunt Faye called us into the house again before Cindy Jane could elaborate, so it wasn’t until nearly midnight that she pressed her point. We’d tiptoed downstairs—lungs held past Edie’s bedroom—and then through the cellar door into the yard, where the previous owner had wedged a tree house into a colossal black walnut. Nearly every weekend night since school let out, the pair of us had been meeting atop those pinewood boards, his-and-hers milk crate stools roosted a thirty-foot climb above the lawn by rope ladder, squandering time and whetting lust. The truth was that I couldn’t imagine kissing Cindy Jane without my eyes clenched shut—she had caterpillar brows and a knob of baby fat under her chin—but I weighed a scrawny one-hundred-thirty pounds in my tennis shoes, and other girls hadn’t lined up outside my door. (The only girl I’d ever asked out, strawberry-haired Angie Swenson, responded to me much as the State Department had responded to Aunt Faye.)  So I faced the teenage loser’s ultimate dilemma: pine after girls like Angie until fate shifted the tides, or make out with my cousin. A bush in hand or a bird in flight, as they say. I reassured myself that Cindy Jane and I shared only a fraction of DNA.

Don’t get me wrong: Cindy Jane hadn’t exactly been offering up her lips for the taking. Yet I sensed that if I mustered the courage to ask, I might receive what I wasn’t sure I actually wanted. In the meantime, while the more popular 98% of Dean Acheson High School’s tenth-grade class bonded at sleep-away camps in the Berkshires—a concept as spendthrift to Aunt Faye as store-pitted cherries—we engaged in a lopsided flirtation, a pas de deux rendered all the more alluring by its concealment. (I must have been in my late thirties myself—as old as Marcella was then—when I realized that Aunt Faye had known of our nocturnal trysts all along, although I’m still unsure whether she was hoping to encourage a “romance” between us.)  Cindy Jane had pinched a coconut-scented candle while babysitting for a neighbor and had smuggled it into the tree house. The flame danced off her pajama top, illuminating her bounteous breasts.

“C’mon, Pete,” insisted Cindy Jane. “You can’t really think it’s a coincidence they’re both tugging on you like a wishbone. Did you notice how Marcella didn’t mention your so-called mother at all in her story about the pirate statue? Not even once.”

“Why would she?”

“Because your mother must have been there with her and Faye in East Sedley? And if she wasn’t, where was she while Faye and her bald gal pal were getting sloppy?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Someplace else.”

“And don’t you think it’s weird that they don’t have any of your mother’s stuff around this house? Not even newspaper clippings? They have a basement full of Marcella’s junk—Marcella’s punching bag and Marcella’s talking Barbie and Marcella’s Go-Go the Burro—a whole damn shrine to one niece—and nothing of your mom’s except a couple of snapshots that could be anybody.”  Cindy Jane adjusted the candle to shield it from the draft. “I mean, there are ten times more photos of my own deadbeat mama in Faye’s albums than of your mother, and my mama is like a billionth cousin two zillion times removed.”

“Mom only lived here a few years,” I argued. “She was already a teenager when grandma died. Marcella grew up here.”

“Whatever.”  Cindy Jane folded her arms across her chest. “I’m telling you that woman they claim is your mother is a cover story. Maybe she was a family friend—or a distant relative of some sort—if she even existed at all. Marcella is your mother.”

I suppose my orphan ears were primed for my cousin’s charge because I found my resistance waning. “I don’t get it. Why would they lie?”

“Who knows? Marcella probably couldn’t manage both a baby and a revolution, so she abandoned you here, and in return for raising you, Faye made her promise not to tell . . .”  Cindy Jane inched her milk crate closer to mine. “Women used to do that all the time, grandmothers pretending they were mothers and mothers pretending they were sisters. Don’t be so fucking naïve, Pete. That’s how the world works.”

You’re thinking her theory sounds like the plot of a Dickens novel—and a bad one at that—that no marginally sane teenage boy could ever embrace such a tale. All I can say is that it’s different if you’ve grown up without a mother, if you sobbed yourself to sleep countless nights over a woman you don’t even remember, if you’ve spent your whole childhood fantasizing that a two-line cable from Guatemala was sent in error. “Marcella is too young to be my mother anyway,” I said, serving up one last defensive salvo.

“Bullshit. How old is she? Thirty-eight? Thirty-nine? You do the math,” said Cindy Jane. “I was certainly old enough to have a baby at thirteen.”

This reference to her own sexual maturity galvanized the atmosphere in the tree house. Cindy Jane glanced down at her knees, her chubby knees that I suddenly imagined spreading with my palms. I felt the tips of my ears ablaze.

“Do you really think she’s my mother?”  I asked—mostly to fill the shadows with words. “How can you be so sure?”

Cindy Jane looked pensive, as though victim to an internal struggle. Outside, raccoons scampered in the undergrowth. The electric lantern on Mrs. Sewell’s porch cast a hostile beam onto “Cousin” Edie’s strawberry patch.

“I’ll make you a deal. Tell me I’m pretty and I’ll tell you a secret.”

This was not the first time, nor the last, that Cindy Jane bartered for compliments.

I tried to meet her demand without lying, but that seemed an insurmountable challenge. “You’re my cousin,” I said. “Of course I think you’re pretty.”

Cindy Jane weighed my answer—deciding whether to be flattered or insulted. “Okay, thank you,” she finally said. “So I’m going to share this with you, but swear you won’t tell a soul.”

I swore—right hand raised like in a courthouse: “May the Red Sox finish dead last for a hundred seasons if I tell.” A barn owl shrieked in the darkness, mocking my oath.

“You’d better not say a word,” my cousin warned. She leaned forward, her lips only inches from mine. I smelled the cinnamon gum on her breath. “When I was two or three years old, Marcella stayed with my parents in Berkeley. I can’t recall much about the visit, but I do remember one thing for certain—she wasn’t alone. She came with a baby.”

Cindy Jane curled her lips into a tooth-crammed grin. Never have I seen another human being appear as self-assured as she did following her revelation.

“That doesn’t prove anything,” I said. My body, quavering violently, cried otherwise.

 

The next morning, while Aunt Faye griddled waffles, Marcella corralled me into the parlor and shared the saga of the Pregnant Pirette, preparing me for the Tuesday morning rally I’d been barred from attending. “You’d be surprised how many female buccaneers there were in their heyday . . . Anne Bonny, Mary Read, Rachel Wall,” she explained. “Jacquotte Delahaye, who faked her own death.” While she spoke, I scrutinized her face, trying to read a likeness to my own drab features. I smoldered to ask her point-blank: Are you my mother? But I didn’t dare—suspecting she would lie, but also fearful of upsetting my own fantasy. Soon “Cousin” Edie settled into the damask-upholstered armchair opposite the bay windows, as she did every morning, stripping us of any vestige of privacy.

Marcella didn’t even acknowledge Edie’s arrival. She asked me: “Do you know what happened to female buccaneers when they were caught?”  

I delved deep into my piratical knowledge, most of it gleaned from Treasure Island and Peter Pan. “They walked the plank?”

“Close. They hanged,” answered Marcella. “Unless they were pregnant.”

Edie flashed a frown in our direction but said nothing. In the foyer, the grandfather clock knelled a joyless eight o’clock.

“If the baby inside them was old enough for people to feel—a stage called quickening—then they were spared the gallows until they gave birth . . . And often, by then, they’d managed to escape or obtain a pardon.”

I studied Marcella’s cheeks, her jawline. We shared a chiseled nose—distinctive on her, I suppose, but too large for my narrow skull. I resembled her more, I decided, than the soft-featured brunette who appeared sporadically in Aunt Faye’s albums. Edie lit a cigarette—Virginia Slims—filling the parlor with the heady cologne of tobacco.

“So they had groups of women whose job it was to decide which pirettes were actually pregnant and which were lying,” continued Marcella. “These were called juries of matrons . . .”

I sensed a lethal presence in the room and looked up to find Aunt Faye, armored in plaid apron and oven mitts, scowling at her niece. “It’s time you stopped filling that boy’s mind with claptrap,” she declared. “What does he care about lady pirates?”

“I’m teaching him about the world,” retorted Marcella. She turned to me and added, “A pirette takes what she wants. Unlike many modern women.”

That was too much for my grandaunt. “The world can fix its own problems. You’d be better off figuring out what you’re going to do with your life, don’t you think?”

“I’m already doing something with my life.”

They stood facing each other—the woman who’d raised me and the woman who might have birthed me—like eighteenth-century musketeers in hostile formation. Cindy Jane had stationed herself at the top of the stairs to survey the battlefield.

“I’d like to have a word with you in private, Marcella,” said Aunt Faye.

Marcella refused to make eye contact. “If you have anything you want to say to me, you can say it right here. I don’t have any secrets.”

“Well I have secrets. Plenty of them. And while you’re eating my food and sleeping on my bedding, young lady, you’ll just as soon give me a moment of your time.”

The innuendo about secrets was not lost on me. Cindy Jane beamed knowingly.

Marcella didn’t say a word, but she slowly—at the pace of a molasses-dipped tortoise—climbed off the sofa and trailed Aunt Faye into the kitchen. The heavy oak door swung shut behind them, muffling the ensuing row. “I have an idea,” suggested Edie Coffin. “Why don’t we three play a round of pinochle?” Any hope of overhearing the conflagration in the next room was soon drowned out by the widow’s squeals of “Aces abound!” and “Nine of trump!” Cindy Jane and I conducted an entire conversation with our facial muscles.

Secretly, I hoped for a revelation—like King Solomon offering to split the baby in half—that would expose my mother’s true identity. Instead, a subdued Marcella eventually pushed open the swinging door with streaks of eyeliner trailing below her orbits.

“We’ve reached a compromise, Peter,” she announced. “Faye has agreed to let me take you to see the Pregnant Pirette tomorrow. But then I’ll bring you back here and I’ll go to Tuesday’s demonstration alone.”

Aunt Faye emerged from the kitchen. “And the other half?”

Marcella’s voice tensed up. “I’ve agreed that she can come with us.”

 

One advantage of having Aunt Faye accompany us was that we could drive her Oldsmobile directly to the coast, rather than calling a cab to take us to the bus station. Around ten o’clock the next morning, we piled into that oversized vehicle—my grandaunt behind the wheel, a cooler of turkey sandwiches and fruit punch in the trunk—and headed toward Long Island Sound. Edie stayed home to look after the house. “What do I want with pirates?” she asked. (I’m honestly not sure if Edie Coffin stepped foot from that property even once between the day she moved in and Aunt Faye’s funeral; my grandaunt’s will left her the place, in trust, and when I visited Edie in her final years, the widow’s sole goal was surviving until the mint issued the last of its fifty-state commemorative quarters, which she collected like relics.)  Cindy Jane also had to remain in Powick Bridge, much to her consternation, because Aunt Faye declared, “I can’t be responsible for looking after two wild children at once.”  That Marcella was so desperate to show me the statue, but obviously less vested in my cousin, struck us both as telling.

A skilled driver could reach East Sedley from Powick Bridge in under ninety minutes. Aunt Faye managed the trip in slightly over three hours. She refused to leave the right-hand lane, even when we found ourselves behind a trailer hauling cement pylons, and she stopped at every public restroom in southern Connecticut. While we drove, Marcella furthered my education in the field of female piracy. I entered a panorama of cross-dressing bandits and swashbuckling maidens who fed English admirals to sharks. Marcella possessed a gift for elucidating the underlying political implications of the most innocuous-seeming yarns. “Often a considerable time passed between when these women were apprehended and when they arrived on shore to plead the belly,” she said. “So a class of professional ‘baby getters’ seized the opportunity. These were able seamen in the Royal Navy who’d knock up accused women for a small share of their pirate’s loot—or even for amusement.”  I found myself both fascinated by this revelation and mortified that Marcella had shared it.

“Don’t you think that’s enough?” asked Aunt Faye.

“I don’t see the point of sheltering him,” snapped Marcella. “He should have some idea of what women have gone through to get where we are.”

“Not all women were pirates,” said Aunt Faye.

I sensed the two of them were engaged in a complex emotional ballet, employing military stratagems of Napoleonic proportions, tactics that made the pas de deux between me and Cindy Jane look like an amateur checkers match. In some ways, I felt irrelevant to the entire struggle—a pawn, an afterthought—and then the notion hit me that maybe I was an afterthought. If Marcella could be my mother, why couldn’t Faye be her mother? Suddenly, all of the enigmatic twists of my childhood yielded their mystery.

Ginny would want him to know,” said Marcella.

“I don’t doubt she would,” answered Aunt Faye. “But Ginny’s not here.”

My grandaunt’s words sounded more like a warning than a statement.

After that, we drove in silence until we reached the coast.

East Sedley did not live up to my hopes. The resort had once been a summer retreat for upper-middle-class New Englanders—WASPy physicians and insurance executives who wished to avoid the nouveau riche Jews, like my father, who’d “taken over” Watch Hill and Nantucket. By the early 1980s, the town center consisted of a shuttered movie house, a flyblown post office, and a post-and-beam library open three mornings each week. Of the two-dozen motels that had lined the beach from the marina to the Rhode Island border, only one—the Captain’s Deck—remained operational. All of the others, including the Vengeful Scrod, where my family had summered, and the adjacent Jolly Roger, whose beachfront harbored the Pregnant Pirette, had been commandeered by the state in eminent domain proceedings.

Aunt Faye eased the Oldsmobile into the gravel lot opposite the remnants of the Jolly Roger. The letters V-CAN-Y welcomed us in unlit neon. Beyond a chainlink fence rose the steel shoulders and bulging metallic tummy of the Pirette. Rigging cascaded down her back in a knotty mane. A corrugated patch covered her left eye. The fabric shielding her breasts had long since peeled away, exposing two jagged-edged cones. Nearby, a Caterpillar bulldozer lurked in a pit of sand, temporarily deserted, awaiting its turn at the Pirette.

Marcella hiked through the litter-strewn no man’s land between the road and the construction site, kicking aside the orange traffic cones and yellow police tape that walled off the public from the padlocked gate. She cupped the lock for a moment, then let it fall against the meshwork with a clatter. Overhead, terns and herring gulls circled for prey.

I let the sea breeze fill my lungs with salt.

“Satisfied?” asked Aunt Faye.

Marcella glowered at her. “Very.”

The pair of them certainly interacted like mother and daughter.

 

Our outing sounded all the more uneventful when I shared the details with Cindy Jane later that evening while Aunt Faye and Cousin Edie prepared supper. I described Marcella’s failed effort to scale the fence, her dustup with my grandaunt, the numerous times she declared that my mother would have wanted me to see the Pirette. I related our brief detour to a specialty knitting shop in Branford, east of New Haven, where Aunt Faye picked up a ball of merino yarn for her next quilt. “If I’m gallivanting halfway to the moon,” she said, “I might as well make good use of the gasoline.”  I complained to Cindy Jane of the gargantuan mosquitos that guarded the statue. I pointedly omitted my theory of multiple generations of family deception. Once we’d been summoned to the dining room, nobody made mention of the excursion at all.

A truce had settled over the household. Aunt Faye acknowledged that there “was no harm” in my seeing a historic landmark like the Pirette, which she conceded “could be considered a feminist icon” from a certain perspective. Marcella made a point of including Edie Coffin in the conversation, asking after her tea roses and her stamp collection. Cindy Jane scrawled the words Are you my mother? on her napkin and slid it onto my lap. By the time Aunt Faye served the apple cobbler, we were actually laughing like a family.

That night, I dreamed that I’d accompanied my mom to the Guatemalan Highlands. We trekked from village to village, organizing the K’iche’ people for revolt. Somehow, I was both an infant and a teenager at the same time, just as my companion was both the brunette from Aunt Faye’s photos and Marcella, so when the death squads finally caught up with our band—while my mother was away, spying on nearby quarry—I pretended to be a sleeping child and managed to survive the ensuing massacre. I balled up my limbs, frozen, until my mom returned to the bloodbath and shook me awake. She kept shaking me, so I opened my eyes, and there stood Marcella, in my dimly lit bedroom, a finger over her lips. At her urging, I dressed rapidly and followed her downstairs. The grandfather clock in the foyer read 4:00 am.

Marcella didn’t have to tell me where we were going. As soon as I saw her retrieve the keys to Aunt Faye’s Oldsmobile from the wall hook in the kitchen, I understood that we were headed back to the coast to help rescue the Pregnant Pirette.

“It’s raining,” whispered Marcella. “Do you have a jacket?”

Her words sounded maternal, not auntly. No teenage boy has ever been so thrilled to be told to bundle up. I retrieved my windbreaker from the hall closet.

Route 89 extended clear as an airport runway in the predawn. Steam rose off the asphalt. We crossed the Powick River and gusts rattled the chassis of the Oldsmobile. Marcella drove at twice the speed of my grandaunt, peeling turns and passing buses on the right. She’d flipped the radio to a folk station and the car filled with the sounds of The Original Caste commemorating “One Tin Soldier.” I dozed to the rhythms of the highway. When I woke again, we were already on the outskirts of East Sedley.

“Good, you’re up,” said Marcella.

She stopped for carryout coffee at a ramshackle café.

“How do you like yours?” she asked.

I didn’t. But I hoped to sound mature. “Black,” I said. 

She poured cream and sugar into her own cup.

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” said Marcella. It wasn’t until my second semester at Yale that I realized the quote was Eldridge Cleaver’s, not hers. “Faye is part of the problem. Ginny would want you to be part of the solution.”

“Aunt Faye tries her best,” I said.

“I know that,” Marcella said. “But sometimes that’s not good enough.”

We climbed back into the car and soon pulled up in front of the Jolly Roger. Several of the demonstrators had already arrived, including an elderly woman with a bolt cutter. Also on hand was a morbidly obese man in his sixties, the brother of the sculptor. Next a lesbian couple arrived, then an unkempt family of six. By daybreak, other protestors—mostly women, mostly over forty—had arrived with placards that read Saws Off My Belly, the rallying cry of the Pirette preservation movement, but also Close Yankee Power and Save Narragansett Bay and Reagan = War Criminal. One activist distributed fliers demanding immediate pardons for Eddie Conway and Leonard Peltier. Another, whose outfit reminded me of Danny Kaye channeling a court jester, connected the statue’s fate to the plight of Palestine and Tibet. At full deployment, the campaigners numbered about thirty.

I hoped that Marcella might introduce me as her son, but she didn’t. “This is my nephew, Peter,” she said—and each time she said “nephew,” I felt disowned. My nose and chin grew raw from the spray-brined air.

The construction crew arrived around nine o’clock—a half-dozen sun-scarred men in coveralls and hard hats. I’d anticipated warfare, but the demolition team appeared largely indifferent to the disruption. They got paid, it seemed, either way. Only their foreman expressed any displeasure. “This here is private property,” he shouted over the protesters’ off-key chorus of “We Shall Overcome.” “I’m going to have to call the authorities. You’re leaving me no choice.”

He returned ten minutes later and said, “Please, be reasonable. Look, people, you’re going to get yourselves in trouble. I’m warning you.”

Our ragtag band sang louder. Marcella squeezed my forearm.

“Your mother would be so proud,” she said. “We’re going to win.”

I trusted her. “Do you really think so?”

“Of course I do. The momentum is on our side. And so is justice. Once they realize what the Pregnant Pirette means to us—as women, as human beings—they’ll back down.”

We were still singing when the squad cars arrived. New London County Sheriff. Two officers in each. They approached us, communicating in their own dialect of nods and gestures, and I feared they might break out stun grenades or tear gas canisters, like the military police had done when Marcella refused to leave the air force base. To my amazement, one of them asked—in a voice firm, but not unkind—“Are you Peter Kuritsky?”

I honestly don’t remember what I answered, or even if I answered at all. I have only the vaguest recollection of climbing into the rear seat of the cruiser, followed by Marcella, who apologized to the other demonstrators before departing. “A misunderstanding,” she pleaded. “We’ll be back as soon as we sort this all out.”  Today, I imagine she’d have been arrested for kidnapping, but those were laxer times. All the authorities wanted to do—and the senior officer explained this patiently, between Marcella’s threats—was to return us both to Powick Bridge, where Aunt Faye waited at the station house. “If it’s a misunderstanding, ma’am,” he said, “the local police will sort it out for you.” Yet when the vehicle’s door shut behind us, the clink sounded like the closing of a prison cell. East Sedley retreated into the past.

I watched the cops in the front of the cruiser, but they were ignoring us. My window of opportunity was closing: if I wanted to know the truth, this was the moment. I counted to ten and played all my cards. “Marcella, can I ask you a question about the time you visited Cindy Jane’s parents in Berkeley?”

Marcella turned toward me. Surprised. Puzzled. “What?”

I didn’t need to hear anything more. I already knew the truth—I could see it in her confusion—and I fought back my tears. Not only was Marcella not my mother, I understood, or Aunt Faye my grandmother, but the Pregnant Pirette would soon land in a scrapheap, and no lifetime of tides would unite me with Angie Swenson, and no matter how many times you watch Call Northside 777, you won’t see the actress June Havoc in an uncredited role as my great-grandmother because she doesn’t appear in the film. Not at all.

 

“She really called the police?” said Cindy Jane. “Wow! That’s crazy.”

Although it was a weeknight, we’d rendezvoused in the tree house. Marcella was long gone and another eight years would elapse before we heard from her again: a Get Well card that arrived—too late—after Aunt Faye’s second stroke. My grandaunt had offered to pay for a taxi since her Oldsmobile remained behind in East Sedley, but Marcella insisted on hitchhiking to the train station. Outside, a cold front had left a damp nip in the summer air. Fireflies pulsed in the yard below; a whippoorwill wailed. My wrists and ankles itched from where I’d been nibbled by mosquitos.

“Did you get to ask her whether she’s really your mother?” asked Cindy Jane.

“Why bother?” I replied. “She’d lie either way.”

I let Cindy Jane absorb my indifference. She looked wounded.

“Let’s talk about something else,” I suggested, seizing the advantage.

Cindy Jane’s voice turned coy. “Like what?”

My eyes casually raked over her flannel-covered legs, her cleavage.

“I have an idea,” I said. “Let’s not talk at all. Let’s kiss.”     

My audacity surprised even me—as though I were the first teenager ever to ask for a kiss.

“I’ll make you a deal,” offered Cindy Jane, as though she’d had the words stockpiled. “If you tell me you love me and you’ll be my boyfriend, I’ll kiss you.”

So I told her the lies she asked for—and then I leaned into her with my eyes clenched, ready to start making my way in the world.

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story WAR RUGS

CYNOCEPHALI, a community of Monsters, (having, as their name (κυνός κεφαλή) implies, the head of a dog, but in all other respects resembling man,) who are described at some length by Ctesias, (ap. Photium, 72, de Indicis.) This author says that the Cynocephali bark a language which is understood by each other; that their teeth are longer, and their nails both longer and rounder than those of dogs; that their complexions are black, and that they occupy a tract of country in the mountains as far as the Indus. In their general dealings and institutes they are eminently just, (δίκαιοι πάνυ).

—Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, 1845

 

The Dogfaced girl sits with her red-furred muzzle pressed against the window of the van. The sidewalks of this neighborhood are empty, and the houses are brick, built in the image of their owners’ skulls—flat and clenched. If she holds still, she can hear all the TVs, spilling their caustic wash of anger and bubbling jingles. As has become their pattern, Alcibiades and Themistius drop her off last out of the whole Squad. They pull over at the end of a cul-de-sac adorned with flouncing flags and perfumed olive trees. Themistius, a puggy Dogface with a patch of black around his eye, turns to her from the driver seat as she tucks her nail file into her folder of sales brochures. She stares down at the one long fingernail on her left pinkie—pointed and polished black, winking one tiny fleck of lapis.

“You gotta be careful out there today,” Themistius says. “Don’t play games. They call hubby, you bounce. They tell you, ‘Wait right here,’ you bounce. They start asking questions, you bounce. Got me?”

The Dogfaced girl nods at him and slides open the van’s door. The early summer heat flashes up to meet her with tarmac and grass clippings.

Alcibiades, an Occidental—a “normal,” a Buttonhead—sitting shotgun, turns to him and says, “Give the girl some latitude. She’s not some bimbo like that Eris was. She knows what’s up. Right, Zylina?”

Three weeks ago, when she first signed on to the Squad, Zylina couldn’t tell which one of them was in charge. Their titles didn’t help. Alcibiades is called “Squad Captain,” and Themistius, “Squad Chief.” They’re both older than anyone else in the van. She’s guessing thirty, maybe thirty-five. But she’s beginning to see that Alcibiades is the one who pulls the strings. Themistius is just there to give all these Dogfaced kids some kind of hope that if they work real hard, maybe one day they can do the driving. Fucking Buttonheads.

But she softens a little, looking up at smiling Alcibiades, with his pretty eyebrows, nubby nose, and those stupid little ears, curled and naked. Sometimes she wishes she had ears like that. Ones that didn’t work so hard.

“Yeah, I got it. I’m just gonna run the script,” she says.

“Sure,” Alcibiades says. “You’re gonna work that uniform, though.”

She wiggles a bit, swaying her khaki skirt as she steps down from the van, half hoping Alcibiades is watching her ass. The sun licks the bare skin of her limbs and the fur on her face. There’s grapey mountain laurel in the air. She feels like howling—like her mother told her not to.

 

She knows the first house of the day is a no-sale straight off when the man comes to the door gawking from underneath a ball cap that says PROUD. Some TV voice, somewhere in the back of the house, is getting heated about the government. The man’s joints—his knee and hip—rasp in a broken way. He tilts against the jamb, holding a crackling Diet Coke. She should have turned away when she saw the marble-look statue of a sniper kneeling in the front lawn, aiming a scoped rifle at the road.

Most of the people who answer the door have probably never seen a Dogface in person before, and the sight of her is usually a shock at first. But there’s something almost accustomed about the way this man looks at her.

Zylina shakes off the uneasiness of the moment and runs through her usual routine.

 

SCENE: “A TOUGH CUSTOMER” OR “HELP ME,
HERMES WITH YOUR SILVER TONGUE”

A gorgeous yet approachable young DOGFACED GIRL stands in the colonnaded doorway to a large home. She grasps a sales flyer in her hand. A PROUD MAN stares her down from inside the house.

PROUD MAN

You selling something?

DOGFACED GIRL

Well, I’m a disadvantaged student competing in a contest, sir.

PROUD MAN

Uh-huh.

DOGFACED GIRL

If I earn more than five hundred points a day, then I win a scholarship for my first year of college.

PROUD MAN

That right.

He empties his Diet Coke down his throat with a toilet
gurgle.

DOGFACED GIRL

Every person I sign up for a subscription from this list is worth fifty points.

PROUD MAN

Not interested.

A sour sweat rises from him. He lifts his hat to reveal his ears, which had been hidden beneath the band. They are scarred, almost melted looking flaps of flesh. There is a scar, too, running down the side of his neck.

DOGFACED GIRL

She clears her throat and pushes her shoulder blades together. Her red polo uniform shirt stretches against her chest—a piece of salesmanship she has perfected.

They’re all Occidental publications, sir. You can own the words at the very foundation of our society.

She points to a list of titles on her sales brochure.

This subscription, for example, is Notions of Justice and Freedom, and this one is The Tradition of Reason. You can cancel at any time.

The SCARRED MAN winks at her and shuts the door in her
face.

SCARRED MAN

From behind the door.

Arf-arf.

A SNIPER STATUE scopes DOGFACED GIRL
from his blind in a bed of irises.

END SCENE

 

She could have been more persistent, like Alcibiades is always telling her to be, but she knows not to push her luck with a guy like this. She’s smarter than Eris was, and she wants them to know it. She’s not going to end up in jail like that dumb bitch.

The next few houses on the cul-de-sac are a bust. Either there’s no answer, or people close the door in her face. One woman, foggy with the stank of wet socks, tells her to “go chew a bone.” Real fucking clever, lady.

She walks back out the main road, meandering through the neighborhood. She’s looking for some kind of house—the type of place that looks a little like a worn patch in the bottom of a shoe. Some kind of place you could poke your little finger through if you pushed it with the point of your nail.

She sees one of the boys from the Squad walking toward her— the one everyone calls “Q.” He’s a tall and disheveled blond, with a long muzzle. Handsome in his way and not afraid to use his looks to make a sale—effective but crude. He struts toward her with his muscled chest pushed out.

“Yo,” he says, pushing his polo sleeves over his puffy biceps. “You moving big dollars over there?”

“I didn’t even try,” she lies. “Looks dead.” She’s taunting him.

“Shit, you don’t even know dead. I’m gonna go crush that. Watch.”

He smells like too much Cool Water and blueberry Swishers. “What about you?”
“Nah,” he says, “that whole end is a bunch of tightwad trolls.

One lady tells me she wants me to meet her Chihuahua. I swear to God, they just set us up to fail. I mean, where the fuck even are we, though?”

“I don’t know,” Zylina says, as Q heads back toward the house with the sniper in the yard.

Since she jumped in the van in the Target parking lot back home, they’ve been in a new city every day. They must have driven through the grease-yellow dust of three states, stopping in each one to knock on identical doors and run identical pitches on identical Buttonheads. If Zylina is lucky, she sells two hundred bucks worth of books and keeps half, minus her share of gas money and the motel. Now that Eris is gone, at least she gets her own room, even if she has to pay for it.

It’s not really that Alcibiades and Themistius want them to fail—at the end of the day, they’ve got to get their cut, too—they just have a pretty limited idea of who makes a good mark. But Zylina is figuring that out.

See, the way they think is: catch a few stay-at-home moms with more dollars than sense. These ladies don’t know that their orders for a Book of the Month aren’t likely to get filled anytime soon and don’t really care. They don’t read anyway. Maybe they like the idea of the books looking good on a shelf someday. It’s fifty bucks they were going to spend on more yoga pants.

The stay-at-home women are fooled because they don’t try not to be. They trust a good-looking kid in a uniform, even if that kid is a Dogface. Sometimes, especially if the kid is a Dogface, because then they’re doing good for a goddamn change. This kid wants to go to college! She wants to be like us! Even better: Doing Good came right to their door. They don’t even have to mute the TV.

But the angle that Alcibiades and Themistius are missing is the folks who don’t get fooled but will pay you anyway. Zylina’s seen it before: a woman who looks at you like she knows just who you are—a full-of-shit kid trying to get enough money for beer, somebody headed anywhere but college. This kind of person, they side-eye you as they hand you money and give you a smirk that says “enjoy all that while it lasts.” There’s something cynical but honest about that, Zylina thinks. The whole world is thirsty for a good frozen-vodka shot of truth.

 

Wandering a few blocks back toward the interstate, Zylina spots an apartment complex. Outside the gate to the parking lot, the shaggy bark of palm trunks shreds in the hot wind. Through the iron bars of the complex gate, the basin of a sputtering obelisk- shaped fountain is collecting hunks of mulch and a few gas station cups. The wind carries cheap incense and the kind of spicy food you leave cooking all day so it’s falling apart by dinner. She’s been living on boxes of defrosted waffles and energy drinks.

She waits for someone to come punch in the gate code. Themistius is always telling the Squad not to go looking for their own leads. “We’ll pick the doors. You just knock,” he tells them. And this was part of Eris’ problem, she started trying to pick doors—the heaviest doors, the richest ones. That and she started trying to rob motherfuckers.

But Zylina is more clever than Eris ever was. She’s not trying to trade up. She’s trying to trade down—looking for someone who recognizes her.

After a while, Zylina realizes that she could be waiting for hours for someone to drive up to the gate. Fuck it. She walks up to the split in the gate and pushes at the two sides. At first, she thinks they might not budge, and truthfully—for a second—she’s relieved. But then, the gate begins to slide. It opens just enough that she can squeeze through, and she slams it shut behind her.

Where the sidewalks of the posh neighborhood were totally abandoned, here in the apartments, she sees people drifting on the cracked pathways. An old man pushes a shopping cart full of laundry past her, leaving a whiff of musky dryer sheets. Two kids who ought to be in school boot a balding soccer ball off a wall, the smack ricocheting across the courtyard.

On the face of every building, balconies are cluttered with charcoal grills, disintegrating cardboard boxes, and pots of limp petunias. There’s even a legless sparring dummy like the one her cousin used to throttle, his shirt off in her parents’ driveway. The dummy’s head juts through the bars of the balcony like a snared animal.

On one balcony she sees an old woman sitting in a folding lawn chair, like her mother used to do, eyes closed against the sun. The woman wears a crepey dress in a bright pattern of diamonds. Zylina walks up the stairway of the woman’s building to the third floor. She approaches the door of the apartment that she thinks belongs to the woman. Zylina takes a breath and then presses the bell.

There’s buzzing inside, then the sliding of French doors, the rattle of plastic blinds, slippered feet shuffling on linoleum, a chain lock and deadbolt, a hand on the knob.

When the door opens, she sees the small woman standing there, smiling her chunky gray teeth, her ears half-covered in a loofa of gray curls.

“Can I help you, young lady?” she asks Zylina.

Zylina runs through the script Themistius insisted she memorize her first day in the van, the freeway exits flipping past her, becoming strange.

GOOD [MORNING/AFTERNOON/OTHER]! . . . I’M COMPETING IN AN EXCITING CONTEST, [SIR/MA’AM/OTHER] . . . THE OPPORTUNITY TO ADVANCE MY EDUCATION! . . . OVERCOMING CHALLENGES AND FULFILLING MY DREAMS! THE STRUGGLE OF BEING A MINORITY IN AN OCCIDENTAL WORLD . . . TO SUPPORT ME AND MY FAMILY BACK IN [HOMETOWN]!

When Zylina gets to the end of the script, and finishes showing the old woman the brochure of books that could be shipped to her on a monthly basis at a limited-time discounted rate, the woman asks, “Wouldn’t you like to come in for a cup of tea?”

This is not part of the scene.

“I don’t know, ma’am,” Zylina says. “I got a lot of houses I’m supposed to visit this morning.”

“You said you have to sell five hundred dollars a day to meet your goal? For the scholarship?”

“Uh, yeah,” Zylina says. The number is made up. Shit, lady, the scholarship is made up. They’re supposed to make as much money as they can, but nobody ever makes the goal. Q sold three hundred a few days ago and he celebrated by smoking everybody up at the motel that night.

“Well, I’d love to look over your brochure, sweetie,” the old woman tells her. “I’m sure I can find something. You just come in and sit for a while.”

Zylina tries to keep the satisfied surprise from her eyes, but she feels her ears stand straight with the shock.

Themistius would tell her this was a trap and she should get out of there. Tell her it’s against company policy. Themistius would remind her that this is what Eris did, going into customers’ houses where she wasn’t told to go, waiting until they went into the other room to get the slice of cake, the glass of lemonade, and then grabbing their purses or phones off the table and running out the door. When you play that game, you never know when the person you try to fool turns the tables and you end up arrested. But Zylina was just trying to run up her commissions. What was this woman going to do? Call the cops for accepting her invitation?

“OK,” Zylina says, handing her a brochure. “I guess I can pop in. For a quick minute.”

“Wonderful.”

Inside: traces of garlic, essential oils, ashed-out incense, and maybe, underneath that, some lingering stink from a cat a few years dead and cremated. A radio still plays out on the balcony. Zylina can hear the noodly guitars of classic rock radio coming through the glass—the kind her father used to sing along to with his improbable English: “The girl with col-li-ding soap eyes!”

The old woman pulls out a chair for her at a dinged-up kitchen table and wobbles over to the sink to fill a copper kettle that looks a little like the one Zylina’s mother kept on the stove at home.

“Do you mind if I ask a personal question?” the woman asks, like someone who doesn’t care if you mind or not.

“Whatever,” Zylina says.

“How long have you been doing this? Selling these books, I mean. Door to door?”

“It’s got to be almost three weeks, I guess.”

“That’s not such a long time away yet.” The woman puts some spoonfuls of tea into the basket of the kettle and turns on the stove, which ticks until the burner ignites. The gas is sharp in Zylina’s nose.

“It’s the longest that I’ve been away, but I don’t miss it much, really. Maybe you think that’s mean of me?”

“When I was young, all I wanted in the world was to get away from my parents. I thought they were just dreadful,” the woman says, turning back to Zylina. “My father was a banker.”

“My parents are pretty chill,” Zylina says, trying to gauge the woman’s response—how pathetic is enough to win her sympathy, but not so much that she seems like a lost cause? “But you know, they don’t know what it’s like for me in my town.”

“Of course they don’t.” The woman’s face softens with pity.

“They lost their shit, though, when I told them I dropped out of school.”

“School isn’t for everyone,” the woman says, angling an eyebrow.

“I guess,” Zylina says. “The kids didn’t talk to me, which is stupid because I’m the one who should be afraid of them.” She’s still not sure if she’s pegged this woman right. Just to be sure, she adds: “This is why I’m working so hard, ma’am. So that I can go back to school and make something out of my life.”

“Of course, it’s not so different around here,” the woman says. “You might have noticed. Or anywhere, I suppose.”

“But I don’t live here,” Zylina says. “I’m just moving through.”

The kettle spittles into the flame on the stove, and the woman rises to attend to it. While she fixes the tea with milk and sugar, Zylina looks around the small apartment.

What she first thought were just paintings hanging on the walls are instead framed weavings—red, blue, and yellow thread knotted into the shapes of bomber jets with wide wings and bulbous heads, or tanks with blocky treads. One repeats a pattern of grenades like crystalline green eggs. Another spreads an array of interlocking rifles. Zylina makes out beautiful missiles, intricate choppers, elegant borders of flame. Tea splashes into one cup, then the other.

The woman returns to the table and sets a teacup down in front of Zylina. The steam is too rich and hot, but she laps at it daintily.

“It’s good?” the woman asks, raising her white eyebrows.

“Sure. Thanks,” Zylina says. The woman looks disappointed at her reaction, and she pushes through her poofy hair to grasp the back of her neck. The pose uncovers her ear, the shape of a wave- beaten shell. A silver crescent earring, dripping with beads, hangs from it like a snail trying to escape.

“What are those?” Zylina says. “The pictures on the wall.”

“Yes,” the woman says, a smile wriggling her fleshy lips. “I thought you might find those familiar. They’re Cynocephalian.” She enunciates the term with careful precision.

Zylina has never actually seen that name used outside school or printed on her refugee card:

FEMALE, CYNOCEPHALIC

“Dogheaded,” her father had explained. “The only way their misshapen mouths can name us.”

“You collect them?” Zylina asks.

“When I could,” the woman says. “I don’t travel so much anymore.”

“So you’ve been there? To my—my parents’ country?”

“The first time I went was over twenty years ago, now. It was a much different place then, as I’m sure they’ve told you. The weapons were still there and the soldiers, but it was very peaceful for a little while. And with the most beautiful people! I wanted to swallow the whole place up and take it back with me in my belly. The last time was probably just before you came here. Just before the first bombings. Well, you know how it was then.”

“I don’t remember it either way,” Zylina tells her. This doesn’t make her sad to think, though she’s sure that this woman thinks she should be feeling some kind of way.

“So you don’t want to go back there someday?”

“No, ma’am. I’m going to California.”

“To go to school?”

“Well, maybe school. Maybe not. My parents told me I had to get a job or move out. So, I did both. I don’t really have a, like, long-term plan, but California is as west as you can go, so I’m going there. I’m getting lit and watching the sunset. Have you seen how purple the sunset is in California? The sunset there is like grape jelly. As soon as the van stops in California, I’m not getting back on.”

There’s something weird about the way the woman is staring at her hands as she rocks the tea cup. It could be that she really believed Zylina was going to be majoring in drama next year at USC, or some shit. Or it could be she’s just happy that Zylina didn’t bullshit her.

“The van?” the woman asks.

“Yeah. You know it drives us around—the Squad that I sell with. These two guys, they drive us and let us off. We take orders, get back on, and they drive us somewhere else.”

The woman’s eyes are fixed on Zylina’s hands, the same way she’s seen Alcibiades staring at her body—some stifled appetite. It seems like she is looking at her fingernail—the long one on her pinkie.

“Sounds kind of exciting,” the woman says. “Living on the open road.”

“I don’t know about that.” Zylina skims her nail along the rim of the cup, testing her.

“When you’re older, you’ll see. Life gets so dull so fast.”

“Thanks for the tea,” Zylina says, standing and fanning her fingers on the table for the woman to get one more look. “So, did you want to buy a subscription?”

“I’m still not totally certain,” the woman says. She puts her hand on Zylina’s, pressing down just hard enough to hold her palm to the wood.

“I thought you were going to order the books.” Zylina looks at the woman’s steamed-over gray eyes. She tries to show her disappointment. “Two full subscriptions you said.”

“Yes,” the woman says, “I was just wondering . . . Would you indulge me?”

“Ma’am?”

“Your fingernail. I was wondering if you would let me take your fingernail.”

Zylina moves to her practiced expression of alarm. It’s the kind of face she gave her parents the moment they told her that she had to leave the house. It didn’t stop them from kicking her out, but she’s pretty sure that it convinced her father to give her the fistful of twenties from his sock drawer before she left.

“I’d be willing to pay for it, of course. And it would grow back.”

“You gotta understand, ma’am, having been to my country, how important that is to my culture.”

Whatever that meant now. Her mother had taught her how to file the nail into a long point, how to lacquer it with polishes that she had kept in tiny crystal pots (now replaced with drugstore gunk), how to open doors and jars without breaking its fragile point, how to brandish it when she was pissed-off with someone. Her mother told her that it was supposed to remind her of the claws the Buttonheads thought all the Dogfaces had—a lie that told her something true.

She never really thought about it much, except that taking care of it made her mother happy even if the kids in school said it made her look like a cokehead. Since she had left, she kept it looking clean more out of habit than anything else.

“You can sign me up for three of your subscriptions,” the woman says with a sharp nod.

“But my mother . . .” Zylina says. “If I ever go home . . .”

“Alright,” the woman says, “I have eight hundred dollars. That’s enough for your five subscription quota with a little left over. You can write that down on your sheet however you’d like.” She winks, unzips a little nylon fanny pack and digs out a neat stack of Benjis.

Zylina makes a slow show of her agreement, taking a deep breath and holding out her hand. The woman tells her to sit still while she gets a pair of scissors.

Zylina listens to the sliding of drawers and the clatter of shuffling through the detritus contained in them—plastic, metal, glass. She stands quietly and walks to the far wall of the room. The framed weavings of the guns and grenades stare back at her. Zylina lifts the edge of one of the frames to look at all the tiny knots of silk, each one the trick of fingers like her own. She thinks of the Dogfaced women pulling hooks, combs, and needles, their own jeweled false-claws kissing the threads as they work. If she had a place to put it, she’d nab this thing—this work—right off the wall. She lets the frame back down, drifts back to the table, and sits down.

The actual cutting is quick. The woman’s hands shudder and the tip of her little Buttonhead tongue presses her upper lip. The stainless blades snip through the nail, and it drops like a breath into a linen napkin cradled in the woman’s palm. Before she places it in a small cedar box, the woman holds it over the tip of her own finger, as if auditioning some prosthesis of spirit.

The woman thanks her and then presses a wad of bills into Zylina’s hand. The money is heavy and damp. Zylina counts out five hundred for the books, three hundred for the nail. She wonders if the woman always keeps so much money on hand. If there is more. If it would be easy to take. She thinks of Eris—how good it must have felt to give in to this curiosity.

“You keep yourself safe,” the woman says as they approach the door.

“Don’t worry about me, ma’am,” Zylina says, looking the woman in the eyes. “There’s plenty of other people to worry about.”

She hurries down the apartment building stairs and strides through the complex back toward the gate. The loss of the nail is such a small change, but without it she feels at once camouflaged and somehow more exposed. The kids kicking the soccer ball do not stop as she crosses the courtyard, and the old man with his laundry cart, who must be coming back with another load, does not lift his head as she passes him in the parking lot. Still there is an alarming sense of lightness. When she gets back to the neighborhood where Alcibiades and Themistius dropped her off, she avoids the other kids in the Squad. There are dandelions growing in the seams of the sidewalks. Zylina spends the last hour kicking off their heads.

 

That night, they stay in a Budget Inn a few miles down the interstate. The pool is open, but the water is filmed with leaves and oily scum. By eleven, nearly everyone is drunk and back in their rooms. Zylina is still stretched out in a plastic chaise with a pool towel wrapped around her knees. Alcibiades is there, too, and they are watching the boy called Q, who sits shirtless with his feet swishing in the water. One of the other boys sits next to him glancing between the smoldering blunt in his fingers and Q’s chest, which flexes, covered in goosebumps. Zylina wraps the towel tighter.

“Damn, you crushed it today, huh?” Alcibiades says, lifting a tallboy of Bud to his lips.

“I guess,” Zylina says. She keeps running her thumb over the rough edge of her pinkie nail.

“Must be working that uniform, like I said.”

“Hell yeah. All the stay-at-home moms drooling at my titties in this shirt,” Zylina says, squeezing her arms together and giving a shimmy.

Alcibiades laughs a little too hard at this, and she goes quiet looking at him. He shows his square teeth and his little nostrils flare. He really is good-looking for a Buttonhead. At least that’s what she thinks right now. She finds herself staring at his ears again. They are soft, delicate, bare—nothing like her own, which stand and point without her choice, covered in coarse red fur.

“Seriously, though,” he says, scrunching his eyebrows and looking into her eyes.

“Seriously, what?”

“I saw you wandering off today. You went into those apartments. You went inside one, with some little old lady, and you didn’t come out for, like, a half-hour. And then when you did, you walked away pretty quick, huh?”

Zylina looks away from him, back toward the pool, where Q and the other boy lean together, licking each other’s faces.

“You don’t even know that was me,” she says, trying to keep her eyes from going wide and her ears from pricking.

“You get a good look around here?” Alcibiades says. “Not a lot of Dogface girls in red polo shirts.”

Across the pool, the boys’ feet are still dangling in the dirty chlorine. They grope at each other’s arms, their waistbands.

“Look,” Alcibiades says, “the folks at the corporate office have been pretty concerned since what happened to Eris. So, maybe you were lost. Maybe I can write down on my report to corporate that I saw you were lost and you stopped to ask directions.”

“Yeah, OK,” Zylina says, “I was lost.”

“Alright. Maybe I’ll write that then. You know, corporate doesn’t want me to have to call the cops on anyone else.”

You called the cops on Eris?”

“I had to. She was gonna get us shut down. But you know, you’re smarter than that. And I like you.”

“I like you, too,” Zylina says, and there’s a part of her that means it. Maybe the same part that is feeling grateful that Alcibiades hasn’t called the cops on her, or the part of her that’s flattered that he looks at her, even now, like he’s hungry for something. She’s worried that it’s the part of her that can’t see a way out of this. She’s picking at the rough edge of her missing pinkie nail. It feels like a scab.

“I’m glad,” he says. “I think that’s going to make things easier.”

She can’t look at him. The boys are leaving the pool, leaning their slick bodies together. She stares down at the towel. The loops in the cotton remind her of the weavings in the old woman’s house with the pictures of the weapons in them. She wonders if the people who made them thought they were just recording what they saw—if they were trying to write history in those rugs. If they were trying to tell her something.

She feels Alcibiades’ fingers on her jaw. His touch is gentle but strong. He lifts her head to look up at him as he slides next to her. “Look,” he says. “You are a really good Squad member. And I think you’re so beautiful and smart.” He smiles almost shyly at her. “You got such soulful eyes.”

“Thanks,” she says. She realizes she is holding her breath.

“And I really like this.” He uses the tip of his thumb to point to his own tongue resting on his lower lip. She realizes that he’s talking about her tongue and feels her ears prickling.

Nervously, she leans in toward his mouth. Cardboardy beer sours his breath. She’s never kissed an Occidental before. She’s never even thought about how it would work. But as she gets close to his mouth, Alcibiades puts his hand on her shoulder and turns away.

“I didn’t mean like that,” he says.

“I’m sorry,” Zylina says. She covers her eyes—half with embarrassment, half with relief.

“It’s just,” he says, “I’ve never been with a

bitch

before.”

The word, coming out of this Buttonhead’s mouth, strikes her.

“Oh,” she says.

“Hey,” Alcibiades says. “Let’s try this.” He reaches down and unbuckles his belt. She hears the soft tinkling of the buckle and then the scratch of his zipper. When he reaches for the fur on the back of her head, she doesn’t need to look down. She can smell him. Bad beer and the ripeness of a man. Her fingernail is still gone, but on the tip of her tongue she can feel the points of her teeth.

“Wait,” Zylina says, tilting her head down to look at him. “I want to tell you what we do . . . back in my country.”

Alcibiades leans toward her and she pushes her muzzle toward his soft, dumb ear. She hears the heave of his breathing, his thudding pulse, the hungry click of his mouth. And beyond that, the hum of the interstate, a gust that just picked up, sizzling dirt against the motel windows.

Before she bites down and tugs back, ripping the cartilage from the pale skin behind his temple, she licks the warm, soft lobe of it, sending electricity down his neck and spine. It is an unspeakable gift.

All he can manage in return is a scream.

 

Zylina is still holding on to the ear as she walks into the sulfurous light of a Valero parking lot. She wipes the thickening blood from her lips with the corner of the pool towel and fingers the folds of flesh cupped in her palm. In the store, she spots a rack of red, white, and blue T-shirts that say PROUD in blocky letters across the chest. In the bathroom, she takes off the uniform polo and changes into the T-shirt. In the mirror, she sees herself—long fox-red face, black nose, ears that tremor, even now, at every noise. She holds up Alcibiades’ ragged ear to the side of her head, covering her own. It’s a bad fit.

“Understand?” she says to herself through the ear. Then wraps it in the polo and throws it in the trash.

She pays for the T-shirt, an energy drink, and a bag of snack mix with banana chips. The lady at the counter clucks her tongue when Zylina asks which direction she needs to go to get to California, but then points left along the interstate. On the access road, Zylina stands with her thumb out, the pool towel wrapped around her bare arms. In the dark, it is impossible to see the little streaks of blood staining it at the edges.

A box truck rolls to a stop in front of her. A driver, whose face she cannot yet see, leans over the cab and pushes open the door. She breathes in, preparing to ask how far the driver is going. It is a bargain she can make in her own voice.

Zylina reaches through the neck of her new shirt and thumbs the hundred-dollar bills stuffed into her bra. Those people who wove guns into their rugs—maybe they weren’t sending her a message but a cure.

 

MOTHER’S LOVE, A SOCRATIC DIALOGUE.
PERSONS OF THE DIALOGUE: Zylina. Mother.

SCENE:—In Exile.

 

MOTHER. I am telling you to stay because I love you.
ZYLINA. Well, your love is a little fucking hard sometimes.
MO. Is it?
ZY. Yes. Your love is like cinderblocks under some ragged-ass pillow.
MO. What should my love be like? Tell me that, Zylina. How should I love?
ZY. I don’t know, Mom. Maybe don’t be so mad at me for leaving?
MO. I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.
ZY. Did you get that from a TV show?
MO. Probably yes, but does that make it false?
ZY. Does it make it corny?
MO. You should do what I have done: Give up your home and career to bring your child out of war and poverty.
Work hard for not enough money only to watch your child reject the opportunity she has been given! Then
tell me you think about my texture. Then tell me who is cinderblocks and who is ragged-ass.
ZY. Ohmygod.
MO. Your grades are good. You have one year left. Why would you not go to college and make a way for yourself
in the world?
ZY. What makes you think that that’s what’s good for me if it’s not what I want?
MO. It’s because I love you.
ZY. Why do you keep saying that?
MO. I say what’s true. I don’t have to prove my love to you.
ZY. You could try.
MO. Tell me: How do I prove? Do you want me to bleed for you? Give me the knife. I bleed for you every day.
ZY. Stop. You’re so extra. Just tell me one time—one time you loved me normally like a mother.
MO. Yes, I’ll tell you. When you were just a baby, three children died in one year from scorpion stings. The nearest hospital was a half-day’s drive away. Your father’s car might not have even made it so far. But the herbalist in our village started using a big horse’s needle to inject the children with scorpion venom. He told everybody that with the venom already in their veins, the scorpions would stay away. It had been thinned—almost harmless. Still, it was a very difficult choice.
ZY. What? Did you do that to me?
MO. Of course. You were fevered for three days. That needle is still inside my heart. But you were never stung by a scorpion. I was always a good mother to you.
ZY. Mom, that’s insane.
MO. No. Not getting you the cure would have been insane.
ZY. That’s not even scientific.
MO. I’m not proving scientifically. You want to know how I love you, and I am telling you. Perhaps my love is needle-love, but how else can it protect you?
ZY. Do you even hear yourself? Why can’t you just be a normal mother? Do you actually believe you can protect people just by feeding them a little piece of what’s trying to hurt them?
MO. Why shouldn’t I believe? You’re still here, aren’t you?

NEW WORK IN NEW CHINA

Young Huli has pushed back the remnants of the Communist Party to Inner Mongolia. His tanks and yellow-shirted infantry have crushed the guerrillas that controlled the provinces below the Yangtze River and the remaining People’s Liberation Army along the Yellow River. He has declared himself emperor. His armies march across the provinces waving blue banners with yellow half-moons, the new symbol for China.  

To celebrate his victories, the young emperor builds a palace in his homeland of Tibet that borders the Gobi Desert, the remnants of the Great Wall stretching in the background. To fill it, he has chosen one virgin from every province to be his concubine. This, he explains to the Chinese people, signifies the country’s unification into greatness. And the girls, whom he will treat equally by going to bed with a different one every day of the month, represent his equal treatment of all the provinces. New China consists of thirty-one provinces, and he has declared that, in the months when there are only thirty days, he will not sleep with Manchuria.

In order to appease the growing demand for democracy—mostly among college students—the emperor has given his concubines certain powers. They will act as a sort of sexual senate. Each concubine will act as a representative to her respective province. They will be able to propose laws, suggest amendments, encourage pardons, and ask the emperor for consideration as a judge or military commander, all on their scheduled nights when the emperor sleeps with them. The college students remain unsatisfied, but the emperor understands that one cannot force-feed democracy. Such sudden freedoms might burst the nation’s stomach.

He believes his biggest problem will be keeping his palace court in order. Reforms bring about unforeseen obstacles: how will the emperor maintain control of his sexual senate? He decides to reinstate an old tradition used by the emperors of past dynasties: the recruiting and training of gong-gongs. A gong-gong is a manservant of the emperor and the emperor’s concubines who, on appointment, is made a eunuch. The young emperor has read Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dreams of Red Mansion, and he understands that in China’s past, even when eunuchs and concubines were not given any official power, public intrigue reached such levels that they were sometimes able to usurp the throne. He must pick his servants carefully. 

One of the recent appointees is a man named Zhang Mei, a cook he met in Beijing during his siege of the city. The man is unusually loyal and trusting, but the emperor did not waive the cutting of the testicles. “Traditions,” he said to Zhang Mei, who was kneeling before him. The emperor must strictly maintain a tradition as important and as commonly known as the requirements to become a gong-gong.

Zhang Mei is not from the city. He was born in the countryside, and snuck into Beijing when he was twenty using a fake birth certificate. He did not know it was the new emperor Huli who was enjoying his hand-drawn noodles during the Siege of Beijing, always sitting on that patch of dirt next to his concession stand. The man’s face looked more like a beggar’s—covered with hair, his teeth crooked, his nose long like an opium addict’s pipe. He sat there and ate and steam came out of his mouth, and he laughed with his entire body when his soldiers said something funny. Zhang thought he was an infantryman, or perhaps a tank commander. On one such occasion, Zhang was standing in front of the strange man, pouring him flour broth, when he saw a stray shrapnel flying toward them. He knocked the hot shrapnel away with his wok. In the process, he spilled the steaming broth on the soldiers. He was almost afraid the hairy man would lob a grenade at his concession stand. Instead the man thanked him and brought him to Tibet, then made him a eunuch. Zhang Mei considers his current station in New China to be most fortunate.

He has a cousin stuck in the countryside. This cousin, Pei Pei, has recently married his village sweetheart, and their dream is to live in Beijing or Shanghai. Zhang wants to help them. He calls his cousin using his government-issued phone, and urges him to come to Tibet and work for the emperor.

“You won’t have to worry about money anymore,” Zhang says in his new high-pitched voice. “Everyone will have to bow to you. I’ll put in a good word with the emperor.”

At first Pei Pei thinks that the change in his cousin’s voice is due to the dry climate of the Gobi Desert. Then he realizes that it is because his cousin is not a man anymore. Not having testicles, Pei Pei realizes, affects you beyond your penis not hardening. Not only is his cousin’s voice not a man’s anymore, it is not anything. Not exactly a woman’s voice. Not exactly a boy’s squealing. It is bass-less, like talking while being choked.

“Give me a few weeks, Zhang,” he says. “Let me think about it.”

“What’s there to think?” Zhang says.

“Well, it’s that Song and I want children.”

“You can still have children. First put the bun in the furnace, then take the position.”

“Will the emperor wait that long?”

“What do you mean?” Zhang says. “How hard can it be?”

“Well, we want more than one child. Do you think the emperor can wait a year or two?”

“I don’t think so. He has already made many amendments regarding the appointment of gong-gongs. He might start issuing an examination for it. This is an opportunity few people get. Think it over, Pei.”

Pei Pei hangs up the phone. It is October and winter comes early in the countryside. He is sitting cross-legged in his mud shack, huddling on his stone bed in his sheepskin coat, smelling of urine. He turns around and looks at Song. She is squatting by the furnace, fanning the flames so she can begin to prepare dinner. She turns around, smiles, and says, “It’s cold tonight. Dinner shouldn’t be ready for a while.” What will happen if they have children? He can see them, noses running, sitting around the fire with Song, waiting for their dinner, trails of flame flickering onto their faces. She deserves better than this, he thinks.

The next morning Pei Pei goes to his parents’ house to borrow some flour and hears his father talking on the phone. His father turns and smiles when he sees him coming in, and his mother gives him a large sack of flour, more than twice what she normally gives him.

“Brother Zhang tells me he can make you into a gong-gong,” his father says. “Congratulations. Everyone here is very happy for you. Your mother and I are proud.”

“What do you mean ‘everyone’?” Pei Pei asks.

“Your brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, everyone in the village,” his mother says. “Do you expect us to keep news as good as this to ourselves?”

Pei Pei drops the sack of flour on the floor and covers his face. He sits down at his parents’ table and becomes silent. He rests his elbows on his knees, his face still in his hands.

His father sits down next to him and pats his head. “You are young, Pei Pei,” his father says. “I know you are at an age when your genitalia are very important to you. But it would be irresponsible of you not to take this position. You are the oldest in the family, and you have responsibilities. Brother Zhang tells me the emperor has allowed you to have children. You still have time to help Song conceive. As your father, and as an old man, I can tell you that genitalia are not as important in the future as you think. You have nothing to worry about. You will still be normal. Better than normal, in fact. Everyone will respect you.”

Pei Pei looks up. His face is covered with flour, white as death. He sniffles, and then sneezes. Liquid drips out of his nose and eyes and streaks through the flour like rivers.

“Let me get you a towel,” his mother says. She takes a dirty towel from the kitchen and wipes off his face.

He leaves his parents’ house and walks home, the sack swung over his shoulder. On the way back, he notices the new way people look at him. They nod when he passes them, and smile, showing him teeth. He passes his old teacher. “Finally making something of yourself,” the woman says. Pei Pei walks faster. He looks down and tries to hide his face, and when he gets home, he locks the door and barricades it with the sack.

“What’s wrong?” Song says.

“You don’t know? You haven’t heard the news?”

“No,” she says. “I’ve been cooking lunch.” She stops fanning the furnace. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he says, calming down. “Everything is where it should be.”

The emperor Huli knows that gong-gongs serve as much as they are served. He understands that those indentured to the powerful are also powerful themselves, that this is the way it has always been in imperial China. Because Zhang saved his life, the emperor has made him the head of his band of personal eunuchs. The emperor has read of a trend in Romance of the Three Kingdoms where eunuchs given to concubines aren’t used as servants at all, but are played with like pets. The concubines dress them in female clothing, and have them perform tricks and feed them treats. The emperor is careful not to put Zhang into such a humiliating situation. He respects Zhang’s opinions, and has given him a large mansion within the palace walls. 

Inside his mansion, Zhang claps his hands twice. Two chambermaids enter the room carrying his cell phone and a pot of steaming water. They take off his clothes and scrub his body. He lifts the phone to his ear and calls his cousin.

“Just come for a visit,” he tells Pei. “Take a look at how extravagantly I am living.”

“Give me some more time,” Pei Pei says.

“I can’t give you any more time,” Zhang says. He stares at the chambermaids wiping off his body. They are wearing traditional Chinese dresses, pink with colorful jasmine designs, sashes folded over at the waist and then buckled with a black belt. He touches one of the girls’ hair, and then reaches into her dress and feels her breast. He tries to remember what he felt like before he became a eunuch. He regrets not being able to do anything with her, but he manages to convince himself that he is in a better circumstance, give or take.

“If you’re even considering this position,” he says, “you need to come for a visit.” The chambermaids put his clothes back on. “The emperor, and the concubine you’re to be serving, want to see you. I can’t convince them just by running my mouth.”

He hangs up. He puts on his title hat, a black top hat with a topaz in the middle and two long rabbit-like ears protruding from the side, and opens the door. He swings his hand carelessly at the chambermaids and walks through the courtyard with his hands tucked behind his back. He passes peach trees and fountains and he forgets that it’s winter and that he’s in a desert. The entire courtyard is a greenhouse, under gigantic panels of glass.

He makes his way into the main palace. He walks past rolls of identical rooms until he comes to a red door with Lady Jing inscribed on it. Lady Jing is the newest concubine in the palace. The young emperor has recently returned from Henan province where he picked the sixteen-year-old Lady Jing from one of the poorest villages in the country. He told the people of Henan that he picked Lady Jing “because of her beauty, grace, and excellent acumen for law and justice.” 

The chambermaids lead Zhang into the interior, where the young girl is brushing her hair. Immediately she turns around and smiles.

“I’ve been waiting for you all night!” she says.

“I had to make a call,” Zhang says.

She stops brushing her hair, walks over to where Zhang is sitting, and starts playing with his title hat, flicking the rabbit ears back and forth. “There isn’t one thing to do in this forsaken place!” she says. “Not one man between fourteen and forty.” She sighs. She is kneeling on the floor next to where Zhang is sitting, looking up at him as if she were his daughter. “So where are you taking me tonight?”

“Nowhere,” Zhang says. “I’m here to tell you that the emperor’s going to want you tonight.”

“Oh, curse the emperor! He’s so hairy, and he stinks. Tell me again about this cousin Pei of yours. Tell me again how handsome he is.”

Zhang looks down at the girl sitting at his feet, and wonders how she is ever supposed to represent an entire province. How could she ever symbolize fifty million people? She is naïve and immature, just like everyone else in Henan. Maybe that’s it, he thinks, maybe it takes someone who is naïve to represent those who are also naïve.

“I can’t wait until he comes,” she continues. “These maids are so boring! They look at you as if you had knives for eyes. I don’t have any friends here.” She looks down.

“What about the other concubines?” Zhang says. “Lady Xiu lives down the hall. Have you tried making her acquaintance yet?”

The girl shakes her head. “I spoke to her once,” she says. “She’s very secretive. Why are all educated people so secretive?  Sometimes she goes out in the middle of the night.”

Lady Xiu is the only concubine who has a college degree. At twenty-four, she is also the oldest. She represents Beijing, which the emperor considers a province all to itself. He met her after his siege of the city, when he declared himself emperor and told the Chinese people about his plans for the sexual senate. He saw her at a suburb along the outskirts of the city, where he ordered the town to line up its available girls so he could choose. Right away he knew he wanted Xiu. She wasn’t the most beautiful, but she was the most adamant, speaking confidently and clinging to his arm.

“Nobody knows what she does,” Lady Jing continues. “The maids think she has a lover.”

“She better hope the emperor doesn’t find out.” Zhang walks to the door.

“At least she has something to be excited about. I have nothing.”

“I’ll see to it that my cousin is here within the month,” Zhang says, passing through the silk veil.

As he walks back through the palace halls and into the courtyard, he thinks about Pei Pei. “I am doing him a favor,” he tells himself. But he doesn’t recognize his own voice anymore. “I am fortunate,” he says. “Millions of people would love to be in my position.” He walks in small, mincing steps—the only way he is able to walk after the operation. He feels useless whenever he walks. “Anyway I can’t take it back now.” The only thing he can improve now is his status in the palace. First he must gain the emperor’s full confidence, then surround the emperor with his own allies. If his power continues to grow, he will soon have enough people around him to do anything he wants, perhaps overthrow the emperor, and his traditions. Do to him what he has done to me. Smiling, he opens the door to his room, and claps his hands twice.

“You have to go,” Pei Pei’s father says. “Zhang tells us it’s an order from the emperor. If you don’t go they can have us beheaded.”

“Please don’t tell Song,” Pei Pei says. “I told her that I might be going to the city. She thinks I have a job prospect.”

“You are thinking about this situation the wrong way,” his father says. “Song will be proud to learn that her husband has achieved a high rank.”

His mother nods. “There are many paths that lead to a girl’s heart,” she says.

“Just don’t say a word,” Pei Pei says again, and shuts the door.

When he gets home, he sees fabric lying around the floor and on the bed and on top of the furnace. Song has an old magazine on her lap and has needles in her mouth.

“What’s all this?” Pei Pei asks.

“I went to the store today,” she says. “You have to look good for the interview. Come and look at this magazine. Tell me which shirt you want.”

“It’s not glamorous,” Pei Pei says. “I’ll just be working for a bicycle route.”

If you get it,” she corrects him.

“How did you get money for these things?”

“I’ve been saving up the allowances you gave me,” she says. “And I borrowed the rest from my parents.”

“You shouldn’t have.” He walks over and takes the needle and half-sewn fabric out of her hands and puts them on top of the furnace. He puts his hands on her shoulders and moves them slowly down to her breasts and then down to her hips. He kisses her hair. Then he leans over and whispers into her ear, “Come to bed. You can do this in the morning.”

She shrugs him off. She reaches over his shoulder and grabs the needle and fabric. “Not tonight,” she says. “We have more important things to think about.”

He stops touching her. As he walks to the bed, he mumbles, “What’s more important than a woman’s duty to her husband?” He snuggles onto the hard bed and covers his face with his blanket.

“Pei Pei,” Song says, “you shouldn’t act like this. We can do it any time you want. Right now there are more important things. You have to think about your duties as well. A man needs to take care of his family.”

He doesn’t lift the covers. He whispers, and this time soft enough so she can’t hear, “What family?”

The imperial palace is surrounded by three rings of walls. A shallow moat surrounds the outer wall. Poorer citizens use its waters to wash their clothes. Three drawbridges, each guarded by a pair of tanks, connect the city to the palace. The emperor understands that the moat and walls are not of any practical use. Rather, they are a symbol of power, rooted in tradition, something to make the Chinese people believe that he has obtained the Mandate of Heaven. 

“I’ve never once seen those drawbridges up before,” Zhang says to Pei Pei. They are sitting in his limo. Crowds of people swarm the car, holding signs. They are yelling profanities, demanding change. The driver gets out, shoves his way over to the tanks, and then maneuvers back to the car. A tank comes over and clears a path. They follow it through the outermost wall.

“Who are those people?” Pei Pei asks.

“Young reformers,” Zhang says. “They’ve been protesting since the palace was built. Don’t mind them. The emperor is thinking about cleaning them out.”

“What do they want?”

“Democracy mostly. They’re not satisfied with the concubine system. They don’t see that the concubine system is democracy. Instead of asking for more, they should embrace what they have, and make grievances to their provincial concubine.”

“Would that give them what they want?” Pei Pei asks.

“Not if they want the impossible,” Zhang says.

They pass through the outer rings and enter the palace courtyard. Winter turns to spring. Pei Pei starts seeing everything as if through a curtain of green silk. Willows and peach trees fill the yard. Women wearing traditional Chinese dresses walk past them holding umbrellas. Pink and orange petals fall from the dome.

They drive up to Zhang’s mansion. His chambermaids stand by the door to greet them. A girl takes Zhang’s hand and the other one carries Pei Pei’s bag.

“You’ve arrived just when the emperor has departed for the outskirts of Inner Mongolia,” Zhang explains. “The emperor is serving double-duty on this trip, both to check up on the situation of his forces at the front and also to find an Inner Mongolian concubine.”

“What do I do now?” Pei Pei asks, looking around Zhang’s mansion. Antiques litter the room beneath giant fans. Unraveled paintings and coiled calligraphy cover the walls. Large decorated vases and tangled ginseng roots sit in the corners.

“Don’t worry,” Zhang says. “There are still other people to see. But first we have to get you out of those clothes.”

Pei Pei looks down at the shirt Song has made him: a cleverly designed shirt with alternating strips of blue and yellow fabric to make it look like a striped sweater. He thinks about the time it took Song to make it, the time wasted, the time he could have helped her conceive. This shirt might have cost me a son, he thinks. And then he blames himself. If he hadn’t been such a coward she wouldn’t have wasted that time on something so useless.

That entire night, he can’t sleep for thinking about Song. Around two in the morning a chambermaid walks in and sees his naked body. Pei Pei quickly covers himself. “Tea?” the girl asks, and he suspects she might have forgotten someone was in the guest room. “No, thank you,” he says, and she leaves, smiling coyly. He lies back down, feeling pleased that he had such an effect. It’s obvious that she hasn’t seen a real man for months. If he becomes a eunuch, he will no longer have this effect on any woman. No amount of handsomeness or cleverness can save a man who doesn’t have it where it counts.

“When you see Lady Jing,” Zhang says, “immediately go to your knees and kowtow three times. Also, always stand a meter or more away, and don’t ever touch her. Understand?”

Pei Pei nods. Zhang knocks on the red door, and the chambermaid opens it, taking his hand. Pei Pei follows them inside, almost tripping on his robe, which swings from side to side, trailing the ground. When they pass a silk veil Pei Pei kneels and starts kowtowing.

“Is this him?” Lady Jing asks. “Stand up. Please, stand up.”

Pei Pei gets up, looks at the girl’s face for a second, and then looks down again, his chin touching his neck. The girl is beautiful. She smells of bananas and lavender. She wears a large floppy headdress with flickering rubies and sapphires.

“I’d like to be alone with him,” she says. She waves her hands and Zhang and the chambermaids exit through the silk veil.

She bounces next to Pei Pei and takes his arm. They sit on the bed for a few minutes not saying anything. Then the girl grabs a bunch of letters off her table and flips through them carelessly.

“Do you know anything about laws?” she asks.

Pei Pei shakes his head.

“Can you read?” 

He nods.

“I’ve been getting these letters incessantly,” she says, handing him one. “Read it to me.”

He flips it open. “I’m not a very good reader,” Pei Pei confesses. “I stopped going to school when I was fifteen.”

“You have a beautiful voice. The emperor reads these letters to me, but he has a thick accent. I fall asleep before he finishes. Go on, read it to me.”

Pei Pei holds the letter over the light and squints to make out the handwriting. “Dear Lady Jing,” he reads, “we hope you are happy in your new home in Tibet. We wish you a thousand smiles. Our school is located in Xinchun Village. We haven’t had a teacher for a while now. Our last teacher, Mr. Bai, became a gong-gong. We know that he is needed elsewhere, that by serving the emperor, he is also serving us. 

“We understand that the emperor can’t afford to send great men, those who graduated from the universities, to come and teach a peasant village. But if someone who is literate can be sent over, we would be grateful. We, the parents, donated our savings and hired a man from the city to help us write our words down in—”

“You can stop now.” She yawns. “I’m going to fall asleep. Maybe it wasn’t the emperor’s accent that made the letters boring.”

“There’s more,” Pei Pei says.

“Never mind,” the girl says. “Come here and sit next to me. Zhang tells me you have a wife. Is she pretty? Do you have a picture? Has she given you any children yet?”

Pei Pei puts the letter back on the girl’s desk and sits down next to her. He talks, but doesn’t know what he’s saying. He describes what Song looks like, but he can no longer picture her in his head. Children? He doesn’t even know if he wants children anymore. How many children does a man need anyway? How many children can the world support? The girl listens with enthusiasm. She likes him. She’ll treat his family well here. Song will not need to worry anymore. He will not need to worry anymore.

Over the next few days, Pei Pei begins to accept his fate. He spends a great deal of time with Lady Jing, learning the trade. In the afternoon, he accompanies her to the Discussion Room where all the concubines meet with their provincial lobbyists. Lady Jing finds these events boring and always falls asleep. “When you officially become my gong-gong,” she says to Pei Pei, “I can stay at home and you can take my place.” 

There are very few concubines who attend these meetings, and the ones who do tend to be indifferent. Their gong-gongs speak with the lobbyists for them. Having been to only a few of these meetings, Pei Pei has already noticed the grin on their faces when the lobbyists hand them envelopes, which he suspects are stuffed with money. When he becomes a gong-gong, Pei Pei thinks, he will not be so easily corrupted. He will act on behalf of the people and use his position for the benefit of New China.

The only concubine who seems enthusiastic at these meetings is Lady Xiu of Beijing. Her gong-gong is never present. She argues with the lobbyists in a refined manner. Instead of allocating money to the big businesses, she distributes the money to schools and orphanages. She has also started a program that helps underprivileged young people in the countryside find jobs in the city. The lobbyists hate her. Watching her argue, Pei Pei finds her a remarkable woman. He would like to join her cause as soon as he comes to power. 

A few hours before a meeting, Lady Jing complains of a headache, and tells Pei Pei to attend in her place. During the meeting, the Henan lobbyists talk amongst themselves, seeing that Pei Pei is not officially anything yet, and hand him envelopes, telling him to deliver them to Lady Jing. After the meeting, taking advantage of Lady Jing’s absence, Pei Pei walks over to Lady Xiu and introduces himself.

“I admire what you’re doing,” he says. “New China needs more concubines like you.”

Lady Xiu looks him up and down, and Pei Pei realizes that he has forgotten his place, that he is not officially anything yet. He kneels and begins to kowtow. 

“You still have your testicles?” she asks.

Pei Pei nods. He looks up and sees that she is smiling. Her eyes are surprisingly gentle. 

She leans in. “Let me give you some advice,” she whispers. “Keep your testicles. Leave this place.”

“What does the Lady mean?” he asks.

“Come to my chambers and I’ll explain.”

He follows her down the palace hallway and into her private chambers. Her maids stand guard by the door. Inside, the room is almost identical to Lady Jing’s room. The bed, desk, chairs, lamp, and vases are all placed in the same locations. Stacks of books and papers litter the floor. On her desk is a large typewriter with a half-written letter inside. 

She sits down and puts on a pair of spectacles. “The emperor doesn’t allow us to have televisions or computers,” she says, typing the letter. “I had to have my chambermaids steal this typewriter from outside the palace walls.”

He looks around and realizes that something is missing. “Why doesn’t the Lady have a gong-gong?” he asks.

“He sleeps in his room all day. It’s what I tell him to do. You can never trust eunuchs. They’re always out for themselves. Useless in more than one way.”

Pei Pei keeps quiet. With her spectacles on, Lady Xiu doesn’t look like a concubine at all; she looks like a young girl in a pretty dress, like a college student hard at work.

“You are from the countryside?” she asks.

“I am,” he says. He feels almost ashamed.

She laughs. “You walk in giant steps, like you’re standing in a sorghum field.”

He looks down. “Is that why Lady Xiu thinks I am not fit to become a gong-gong?”

She slides over and takes his hand. “No one is fit to become a gong-gong,” she says. “Why would you want to give up what you have for this? Some of us are here not because we want to be, but because we have to.”

“My village is poor,” he says. “We have no food. My family is counting on me.”

“Your family needs you to be where you are.”

Pei Pei nods, and then looks down. “Lady Jing will be wondering why I’m not back yet.”

Lady Xiu smiles. She leans in and kisses him on the cheek.

Busy commanding his armies in Mongolia, the emperor has left Zhang in charge of the palace. Before he left, he told Zhang to be especially weary of Lady Xiu. The emperor complained that she had been more interested in politics than in sex during her nights with him. Zhang told the emperor that he was suspicious of her himself. One night, while taking a walk on the outermost walls, he saw her talking with some strange men. She was disguised, but dropped her hood for a moment and Zhang could tell she was a concubine. Her headdress also indicated that she was from Beijing. “If anything else of the slightest suspicion occurs,” the emperor said to Zhang, “do not hesitate to take action.”

Zhang is pleased that the emperor has given him such powers. He wants to take full advantage of them, and appoint Pei Pei before the emperor returns. Secretly, Zhang calls Pei Pei’s parents. He tells them to pack their bags and prepare to leave for Tibet. He also tells them to inform Song that her husband will become a high official. Pei Pei has been in Tibet for a week now, and Zhang suspects that he is beginning to get used to the daily baths, meaty meals, and soft beds of palace life.

“It’s time to set a date for the operation,” he says. “I’ve spoken to the surgeons. How does next Tuesday sound?”

“Can’t we wait until the emperor returns?” Pei Pei asks.

“The emperor has already accepted you,” Zhang says. “Anyway, it’s better to have the operation before he arrives, in case for some reason he really doesn’t want you.”

Pei Pei nods. To try and relieve some of his anxieties, Zhang takes him to the room where he is to have the operation. The room, with its stone walls and small windows, reminds Pei Pei of a dungeon. A wooden bed is located at the center, leather straps hanging off the sides. The surgeons who greet them don’t look like doctors at all. They are all eunuchs, dressed in yellow and red half-moon jerseys, with strange grins on their faces.

The night before the operation, it snows. Overhead, a sheet of white covers the green panels, barely allowing light to escape through. At noon, the courtyard already has its streetlamps turned on. Pei Pei sits on the steps outside of Zhang’s mansion, thinking about tomorrow. He turns around and looks through the window at Zhang, who is laughing and talking on his cell phone. That is what I will become, Pei Pei thinks. He imagines Zhang speaking in his high voice. “I am Zhang Mei,” he tries to mimic, but he can’t imagine his own voice ever changing into that.

Zhang opens the window. “Your parents want to talk to you!”

Pei Pei gets up and walks into the mansion. “Here he comes,” Zhang says, and hands him the phone.

“We’re so happy you have made your decision,” Pei Pei’s mother says. 

“Congratulations!” his father says. “But you have to speak with Song. She is hysterical.”

Pei Pei looks at Zhang, who smiles back. He carries the phone outside and takes a seat on the steps again.

No one is on the other side of the line anymore. He hears a lot of noise in the background. His parents are having a party. Among the drunken shouts, he hears someone sobbing. 

He has never heard Song’s voice through a receiver, and he is surprised that he even recognizes it.

“Is this what you want?” she says. 

He doesn’t say anything.

“How could I have known you were unsatisfied with me? You don’t yell at me. You don’t hit me. You tell me I’m a good wife. How could I have known?”

Suddenly everything becomes clear. His parents must have tricked her. He can see their faces. They stare at the fabric and needles and magazines lying around Song’s room. “Look at all the stuff you buy,” they say. “It’s no wonder he feels so much pressure. You’re a spendthrift.” He can see them going to the furnace and looking through the pot of rice and the stew cooking on top. They take a ladle and have a sip of the stew. Their faces turn sour. “And how can he eat this every day?” they say. “It’s really no wonder.”

“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” Pei Pei says. “I’m coming home.”

“We used to be so happy,” Song says. “I remember the summertimes when we used to find spots in the wheat fields and we’d hide ourselves from the other workers. I remember the times when we were kids, when you sneaked up to my window and took me to the watermelon fields. We pretended we were husband and wife and the watermelon halves were bowls of rice. You told me you wanted three sons to help you in the fields, and you promised me a daughter.”

He can hear her stifled tears. Sitting on the steps, he puts his head in his hands and rubs his face. He looks up at the green panels of glass where the sky is supposed to be and suddenly everything around the courtyard seems dark. Petals fall on his legs and shoulders and face, but because of the layer of snow covering the panels, the petals lose their color, and look more like flakes of charcoal on his skin.

The snow falls heavier and the palace grows darker. Later that evening, Zhang’s spies follow Lady Xiu as she makes her way through the three walls and past the moat. She’s wearing a black sweater with a black hood. They see her conferring with several people outside the palace and then giving them a letter. Immediately Zhang’s men try to arrest her. The men around her retaliate against the spies, one of whom is severely wounded. The guards sound the alarm, and because of the flatness of the desert and the footprints on the snow, Lady Xiu and her accomplices are easily captured. 

Upon reading the letter, Zhang determines that Lady Xiu has been part of the rebellion all along. She has coordinated plans with the college students to take advantage of the emperor’s absence and conspired to storm the palace. In order to demonstrate that treason will not be tolerated, Zhang has decided on the immediate execution of the former Lady. 

Tuesday morning, as the snow outside accumulates to over thirty centimeters—a Tibetan record—Zhang stands on top of the innermost palace wall and looks upon the execution. The greenhouse is still dark from the accumulated snow, but the heavy-duty lamps have been turned on and the courtyard looks as if the sun is out. He feels that Lady Xiu’s execution is happening at a most opportune time. Pei Pei stands next to him, wearing the striped shirt his wife made for him, his bags packed. He would have left this morning if it hadn’t been for the snow.

“What did she do?” Pei Pei asks.

“She was very dumb,” Zhang whispers. “If she wanted to overthrow the emperor, she should have waited. Gain his confidence in full, and then take action. What did she think she could have accomplished? The emperor still has his armies.”

On the square below, soldiers with ceremonial spears grab Lady Xiu by the arms and drag her through the petal-covered grass. They pull her onto a platform. Her hair is wild with a few jasmine petals stuck in it, hanging underneath her torn title hat. The two soldiers bring Lady Xiu to the far side of the platform and tie her to a pole. Below the platform, her chambermaids are also tied up. Next to them a fire burns the former Lady’s letters and typewriter. One of the soldiers underneath walks up to a chambermaid, takes out his pistol, and shoots her in the head. Then he walks up to the other one and shoots her in the same way.

“Your parents told me about Song’s disapproval,” Zhang says. “I understand that you are leaving for her sake. It’s very noble of you.”

The soldiers drop their spears and pick up bolt-action rifles. They march to the other side of the platform and look up at Zhang, waiting for a signal. Lady Xiu moves her head around. Strands of hair hide her forehead. Her head is hunched over, weighed down by the torn headdress. She tries to keep it up by pressing it against the pole, but it keeps falling down. Eventually she gives up and her head falls almost to her shoulders.

“After all, what is a man without a woman?” Zhang says. Once Pei Pei crosses over he will understand. He only needs a push in the right direction. He is still my cousin, Zhang thinks, someone who needs my help. “Except,” Zhang continues, “a better, more independent, and clearer-thinking man.”

“You should wait until the emperor comes back before you take any action,” Pei Pei says.

“Pei Pei,” Zhang says. “You misunderstand what New China is about. The emperor is not New China. His time is limited. We are its future.”

“Zhang, you can’t do this. She is a good woman. She cares about China.”

Zhang nods to the soldiers below. They count down from ten. On five, the soldiers shoulder their rifles. On two, they take aim. On one, Lady Xiu’s headdress falls to the ground and rolls to the other side of the platform, by the feet of the soldiers.

“Do you understand?” Zhang continues, his long rabbit ears quivering. “We are its future. We will be the ones in power once the emperor loses control. These concubines—they’re nothing. They’re puppets. It’s going to be men like us, eunuchs, the most intelligent and most ruthless and most loyal to each other, who will be at the top.”

Pei Pei feels dizzy, listening to Zhang’s voice. It slides into his ears like a rusted knife. He can see the future of New China: thousands of men in his likeness.

“Becoming a gong-gong,” Zhang says, “is the only path there is.”

Pei Pei sees children smiling and clapping their hands twice, sees men of his likeness taking care of them. New China doesn’t need more people; it needs to take care of what it already has. It doesn’t want him back in the countryside, creating more problems. The country folks watch him. They are counting on him. They chant his name and stare at him with awe. He walks near them, striding like someone in a sorghum field, but they don’t seem to recognize him anymore. As he approaches, they draw back. They ask him: Who are you?

The young emperor returns from Inner Mongolia triumphantly. His armies have now pushed back the Communists to upper Mongolia and are laying siege to Ulaanbaatar. It should be a matter of weeks before the communist leaders surrender. To celebrate the thorough defeat of his enemy, the emperor has decreed that he will double the number of concubines in his court. In order to represent the people of New China thoroughly, he will need two concubines for every province: just like how it is in America!

Some of his eunuchs, including Zhang, advise the emperor against having more concubines. While it’s true the incident with Lady Xiu has shaken the emperor, he believes that the quick and thorough actions of Zhang have proven the court can handle more. From now on, he will no longer accept any girl with a college education. Whereas gong-gongs must be intelligent, concubines serve only as a median between the emperor and the people. Any girl with a college education, the emperor reasons, has already separated herself from the general masses, and therefore cannot represent the people accurately. He will choose more girls like Lady Jing, who everyone in the court considers a model concubine.

In order to support these additional concubines, the emperor has to recruit additional gong-gongs. There will be a new entrance exam. It will look for intelligence above all else. College graduates are preferable. The emperor instructs his current line of eunuchs to begin development of this exam. Sitting high up on his throne, he claps his hands twice. His eunuchs walk in mincing steps, and stand hunched before him. He scans them one by one, nodding his head, inhaling and exhaling like a meditating Buddha. He takes pride in all of his gong-gongs, who consider their current station in New China to be most fortunate.

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story THE CHAIR KICKERS’ TALE

There was once a bored and powerful king who proclaimed that any man who could tell a story without an end would be granted riches and glory. For weeks, no one dared attempt the task, but then a farm boy climbed the steps to the palace. He was introduced to the king, and right away he started into the story: “A farmer had a stockpile of corn. A locust came and took a grain of corn. Another locust came and took a grain of corn. Then another locust came and took a grain of corn. Then another locust came and took a grain of corn…” and on and on for eleven days, until finally the king grew tired and awarded the peasant a bag of gold and a spot on his royal military council. When war struck a few seasons later, the king sent the peasant to the front line to die, and the kingdom inherited his meager earnings.   

 

I. How It Begins

In the morning, Boss Cline carves day from air. The gatekeep of the Goldsboro Coliseum and Event Complex punches buttons and twists dials to gear up the supermouth cabled on high—five arrays of five jumbo speakers each.

And there are five of us from Event Prep. We huddle with crews from other departments as part of our usual routine, in which we squint our eyes against sleep and await the terrible thunderclap above, in which we slouch under steel-rafter sky as the third shift crew flies loose and weary (those scraps of the night who rub their sockets and drag their spent bodies from the white-green light where they’ve newly unbuilt a basketball court built the first shift previous).

And we envy these brothers as they pass from us oblivious. Then Boss Cline’s word cannons from speakers into the hollowed arena, and we wonder how it came to be that it’s 4:30 a.m. and we still got no coffee.

Boss Cline says: “Let Housekeeping re-clean the clean concrete floors but east to west this time, not north to south, and fill the walkbehinds with low-foam solution. Cloudy streaks are quite apparent from the view above, my little water-blind fish.

“And let Maintenance do something, anything worthwhile, but goddammit if I catch asses in chairs and eyes fixed on the TV, I’ll break every goddamn seat in this arena and give you an eternity of broken to fix.”

And Maintenance, our fearless and shadowy kin, sits in the break room and sips the last of that goddamned coffee while Boss Cline continues: “Let Event Prep set the stage and chairs to their normal standards, which is to say the best, though in half the time, as union techs will need the floor for a bit after it’s cleaned. Many thanks in advance to the hard workers of Event Prep for rising to the challenge.”

And then, an auspicious announcement: “Today, the hiring committee will stand with me in the sponsor suite to watch the work of your venerable crew leader Pops O’Donald. Yes, the rumors are true, we’re considering his promotion to Operations Manager.”

And we recite: Let Pops leave us in his blessed dust; let him have an office with a Chinese rug.

 

II. The Crew

Within the curved walls of the arena, our circular world of false-forward and false-forever, we become Event Prep, known also as the Chair Kickers.

We are Pops, Mr. C, Phil, Jeb, and Benny.

And all the years of service from Pops are thirty and two, which puts him three years from retirement. Pops suffers sleepless nights and blinks too often, and we know him as the waking dreamer, and also as Brazilian, though he’ll never remember that faraway world, his birth name, the language of the parents that couldn’t keep him.

So every day we recite: Let Pops sleep and dream of strange long agos.

And all the years of service from Mr. C are twenty and one. He worked on F-4 Phantoms that flew to Vietnam and views freedom as light that bends at walls. He continues to live and spend by cards, gin, and pussy, in that order, from Friday to Sunday.

So every day we recite: Let Mr. C have a longer weekend.

And all the years of service from Phil are nine. He runs a hip-hop label that can claim only Cham B. LaRone, who also happens to be his cousin, though we pretend not to know this. Phil graduated from the local university’s prestigious music production program.

So every day we recite: Let Phil’s credentials be honored.

And all the years of service from Jeb are seven. He has a history in oil fields, eastern Texas, sick Ma, dead Dad, then dead Ma. There also may have been a failed marriage, or a marriage that never was. The only book Jeb has read is the Holy Bible, and he writes in his notebook before and after the shift, and during breaks. Many call him queer, though soon Benny will inherit the name.

So every day we recite: Let Jeb walk with God, else he walk alone.

And all the years of service from Benny are less than one, as today is his first day. He’s come on part time with the hope of working his way up to full. When he told Phil that he’d failed too many classes and that his boyfriend of five years left him for a doctoral student, Phil didn’t call him a fuck-ass like some, but instead apologized for Benny’s current situation: “I should have warned you: this coliseum is steel, and we magnetic as fuck.”

 

III. Headway

As the Housekeepers re-clean the clean floors, we gather in front of the elephant door and await orders from our noble leader.

“Fucking ____,” Pops says. Fucking teeth, fucking wives, fucking winter, fucking June. And when Boss Cline mentions a possible promotion, Pops says, “Fucking carrots.”

“OpMan is yours,” says Phil. “You’ll have a desk by Monday. We better gaze upon your cherubim cheeks while we can.”

But those cheeks melt like wax when Pops frowns. “They’ll always dangle something.” He moves his shoulder out from under Phil’s hand. “I’d have eighty percent of my pension if I retired today. Eighty is plenty.”

Pops presses a red button, and the great-wide vinyl wall zips open to heavy wet spring.

“These years,” says Pops. “I have so goddamn many.”

And Jeb says, “The glory of young men is their strength, and the beauty of old men is the gray head.”

“Shut up you idiot.”

We file behind as Pops marches up the ramp to the loading dock. “We’ll gather equipment from the warehouse and then build the stage as the floor on the north end dries.”

We know our Pops will surely impress the hiring committee, no matter the time crunch. They have chosen to judge our chair set for the Globex Sales Convention, which calls for only a few thousand chairs and a mid-sized stage. Pops knows this stuff—it pumps through each of his throbbing organs.

After we leave our shift at night, we each eat dinner and watch our programs, and then most of us wrap blankets tight around our bodies and sleep infant-like the entire night through. But Pops—he closes his eyes and swims half-awake through boundless seas of green-padded chairs; he scales aluminum crags of stage all the way up to the stratosphere. Then his alarm clock sounds at 4 a.m., and he reports to the coliseum to tell us what he’s seen.

 

IV. Holding Pattern

After the stage is built, the clang of metal on metal begins to rattle from the rafters above us. The union riggers maneuver tools as they swing from our sky.

“Hold tight!” shouts a belay-man as he loosens some rope so his partner can climb higher. Across the floor, sound techs swarm our stage and shout coded commands between the uproar of amplified feedback. Two twenty-foot towers of speakers stand in each corner downstage.

“Fucking shit-Christ,” says Pops. “This ain’t Elton John.”

The Globex Convention has never before required special lighting and sound, much less union guys. Industry rules prohibit us from setting chairs or other equipment while they have the floor.

Pops lifts his radio to ask the airwaves how long we’ll have to wait. A long pause, and then only Gladys from Housekeeping responds: “Hell if we know. It’s your job to know.”

Pops blinks in time with the long hand of the clock. He works some figures on his clipboard. “If we start in half an hour, that’ll be three hours to doors. 3,000 chairs divided by three sections divided by 180 minutes. 171 minutes. Something like six chairs a minute with no breaks.”

“Possible,” says Mr. C. “We won’t have room for mistakes.”

And Jeb says, “Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.” And Pops curses Jeb and the Lord and the Lord’s mercy. We follow him to the break room to wait for our turn to take the floor.

It’s nearly lunchtime, though no one’s in the mood to eat. Instead, we gather around as Pops gives our first-timer, Benny, the Chair Talk: “With a standard event chair, you have the male and the female parts of the lock. I call the knob-tipped shaft the dick. The slender, ever-waiting hole is the pussy. You have the dick on the right side of the frame and the pussy on the left. So to help our inanimate lovers achieve carnal relations, we must lift the frame and ease the knob into the hole. Then we simply let go—the shaft slides into place, and our lovers remain in union till death do they part. God is a wise and horny bastard.

“Now, consider a damaged chair. Say a knob is bent a little to the left from rough handling by someone who tried to force an ill fit. When I get these poor little chairs, I have to wiggle and jam the dick into the pussy. It’s heartbreaking. You see?” Benny grimaces, and Pops shrugs.

Knowing we still got plenty of time to kill, we head to the break room, where Mr. C steps in and asks Pops to tell us again about The Sole Recorded Account of a Sighting of Boss Cline.

“When was it, Mr. C—ten years ago? It was one of those long days. I think we were babysitting a blood drive in the exhibit hall, just the two of us. We were reading the papers in the break room when in walks some crony in a suit and tie. Said his name was Luddy or something.

“Well, we’d been on our asses for a while and were thinking we’d been caught—maybe secret cameras. But this Luddy guy wasn’t concerned about our asses. He asked if we’d be willing to do a favor for Boss Cline, and of course we’re not idiots so we said we would. We followed him from the basement tile up to the carpet on the first floor and then to the first of several doors that required punch codes.

“So we walked through ten or so hallways, past all these code-locked rooms—and then there we were, standing at the double doors of Boss Cline’s office. They were solid cherry oak, those doors—I swear it—with intricate carvings of tropical flowers, and also these criss-cross lattices, like it was the entrance to an Arabian palace or something. Back me up, Mr. C.”

“That’s right,” Mr. C says, without looking away from the game on the TV.

“Well, Luddy walked us right through those doors, and I expected to find Jesus himself floating above a pool of sparkling water. In all my twenty-some years I had never seen this man whose voice I heard every morning. I felt like the goddamn Scarecrow who come to beg for brains.

“But here’s what was: this man—Boss Cline—had no motherfucking hair on his flesh. None. His skin looked soft and springy, like he was some inflated newborn. So Luddy introduced us, and Mr. C and me were all bumbling and curtsying before this giant, all-seeing infant. Boss Cline didn’t seem to care or even notice us. He just squinted and squinted and I thought maybe he couldn’t see or even hear, maybe he still thought he was alone in his office. But then he told Luddy to tell us to sing him a Christmas carol. So Luddy told us. Mr. C and I side-glanced. I think I even laughed a bit. Sure, the holidays were upon us and whatnot, but who’d guess that Boss Cline would want a couple of old goons to do a tone-deaf song and dance. What kind of entertainment is that? But this was no joke. Boss Cline squinted and squinted and waited in his baby skin, and Luddy crossed his arms, scowled, and motioned for us to begin. I looked to Mr. C and he looked to me. I said, ‘Jingle Bells?’ and Mr. C nodded and we sang the first few words of that holiday favorite before Boss Cline’s eyes flared open and beamed into us with an unnatural force that clenched our nuts to command we sing something more tender.

“Keep in mind we understood this truth without a word spoken. We just knew ‘Jingle Bells’ was finished and jumped right into the correct song—‘Silent Night’—and when our voices unified Boss Cline grinned and rubbed his smooth hand back and forth across his immaculate head, and Mr. C and I sang that carol low and pretty to the end, then three times more until Boss Cline said, ‘Good, that was nice,’ and we knew it was time to go. We were all confused and dream-walking as Luddy led us back through those carved doors and secret hallways, back to our chairs in the break room. He told us to take an extra thirty minutes for our services. Then he was gone. I wouldn’t believe it myself if Mr. C hadn’t been there.”

As usual, we ask Mr. C if it really went like that. “Sure, yes. Like that,” he says.

And then suddenly our radios beep to announce a caller. Boss Cline’s calf-leather voice graces our humble airwaves: “Pops. Come in, Pops.”

We turn down our volume while Pops turns up his.

“Go ahead.”

“May I ask why you’re not on the floor setting chairs with only three hours until show time?”

“It’s the union guys, sir. They haven’t left the floor.”

“You could have started half an hour ago. I made a deal with Harold since these changes came last minute. Didn’t you read the email this morning? You should always read your emails.”

“My apologies, Boss Cline,” says Pops. “I’ll have the floor ready by show time.”

“You have two hours.”

Pops checks his watch. “Pardon, but I think you mean two hours and forty-three minutes.”

A stretch of white noise, then, “I said two hours. You have to finish by the time the show pros arrive so they can do a full security assessment before doors open.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Give me a ten-four.”

“Ten-four, sir.”

Our leader latches his radio to his belt loop and rubs his overworked eyelids. He figures more quick math on his clipboard. We need to set about nine chairs per person per minute. “Impossible,” he mutters.

Phil grabs the clipboard from Pops’s limp hand and confirms the calculations. “We’ll do it,” he says.

 

V. The Chorus

This is when the important work begins, when we live up to our nickname—the Chair Kickers. Not everyone kicks, however—it’s a sensitive art handled by the more adept men—Pops, Mr. C, and Phil.

First, they spend a couple seconds positioning the starter chair so it’s perfectly parallel to the front of the stage. They always set from right to left and front to back, as so: drag, slide and lock, toe-tap the legs into perfect alignment—Skreeek! Kachung. Tungtungtung. At the end of a row they land one final kick at the outer frame of the last chair to shift their work into perfect alignment.

Simpler, but just as important, is the carrier’s job. One: bring folded chairs four at a time from rack to setter. Two: with three chairs balanced against one leg, beat green padding of one chair’s seat until it opens. Three: use one hand to feed chair to setter while using other hand to open another chair. Four: repeat steps one through three until rack is emptied.

And thus we gear as machine.

We split into teams of two, except for Pops, who handles the work of three people. Mr. C struggles with Benny and his cloddish technique.

“Gimme a chair, fool!” he shouts, but Benny only trips over a chair rack when he attempts to speed up. Still, they are quick enough.

And so it passes that after twenty-some minutes, we break into a steady sweat. Green upon green springs from our work, and to Boss Cline up above, it must seem as if we paint lines in fluid strokes.

We become the empty everything as the rhythmic clamor of the chairs washes clean our minds: Skreeek! Kachung. Tungtungtung.

Phil notices our problem after the first hour. Pops is always compulsively precise, but the air in the arena suddenly feels off-balance. Jeb and he are flying ahead, building rows even faster than Pops, so he takes a couple seconds to quadruple check the numbers. Jeb takes over when Phil sprints to the center section.

“I hate to say it, Pops, but we’re at least two racks short. I counted.”

Pops keeps kicking. Skreeek! Kachung. Tungtungtung.

“Do you want me to take care of it?” Phil asks.

Again Jeb speaks from afar: “If any provide not for his own, he is worse than an infidel.”

“Shut up you fatheaded sommabitch!” Pops shouts across the room, though we know he regrets his choice of words in light of Jeb’s recently dead mother. But the chairs—what of them? He counted those racks in the basement four times yesterday. He never miscounts, and certainly not four times.

Boss Cline, in his omniscience, finds just the right moment to radio down and ask Pops what the hell is going on.

Pops sighs and lowers his chair to the ground. He lifts his radio. “I’m sorry, sir. I must have miscounted the racks. I’m sending Phil for more.”

“Is that so?” says Boss Cline.

Phil lifts his own radio. “It was my fault, sir. I took two of the racks Pops had counted and used them for the flea market yesterday. I should have said something.”

“I see,” says Boss Cline. “As you were.”

“Ten-four,” says Phil. He clips the radio back to his belt and turns to meet the expected scowl of our leader.

“You didn’t take those chairs,” says Pops.

“No.”

“Why’d you lie?”

Phil shrugs. “I want you to get that Chinese rug.” He presses on. “The forklift won’t fit behind the stage at this point. I’ll have to roll the racks over by hand.”

Pops nods. “Go.”

 

VI. An Exception to the Rule

Phil opens the glass door and lets the lumpy wheels of the additional carts fall silent over soft linoleum. Two suit-men with gelled hair stop him before the hallway’s bend. “Are you Phil from Event Prep?”

“Maybe.”

“Boss Cline has requested your presence.”

“But these.” Phil motions toward the racks.

The suit-man with gray hair nods to the blond, who promptly pushes Phil aside and assumes his position between the racks. He starts around the bend in clumsy three-point maneuvers, but before Phil can help, the other suit-man has him by the arm and is pulling him toward the elevator.

“The name’s Lonny,” he says once they begin their ascent.

Phil accepts the handshake. “Lonny? You mean the Lonny?”

“Excuse me?”

“Nevermind, that was Luddy. Have I done something wrong?”

“I don’t know. Boss Cline doesn’t tell me anything.”

“Do you have a guess?”

“It’s useless to guess at Boss Cline’s intentions. Just this morning he told me to move two racks of chairs somewhere no one would find them.”

Phil gloves his hands with his pockets to soak up all the sweat.

Instead of taking him to a fifth-floor sponsor suite, Lonny steps out at the second floor. Phil follows him into a carpeted area, past phone-locked secretaries to a code-locked door.

He punches numbers and leads Phil through one hallway to another coded door, then through two more coded doors. Sooner than Phil expects, they reach the cherry oak doors of legend. Upon them: a carven lattice, but no ornate flowers.

Lonny knocks three times. A muffled voice grants them entrance. At this point, Phil nearly expects a man with a full head of hair to greet them from behind a modest executive desk—he knows Pops’s memories come in strange shapes, when they come at all.

Phil steps into the warm yellow light of the office. The walls are lined in bookcases and leather furniture, and before him, corralled by an expansive U-shaped desk, sits Boss Cline. And to Phil’s horror—the man is exactly as Pops described him: a newborn wrapped in a wool suit, squinting into all creation.

“Come, boy. Stand closer to me.”

The rounded cheeks; the chinless jawbone; the protruding, suckling upper lip of a babe. Phil clasps his trembling hands behind his back.

“Ease up—this is not the principal’s office,” says Boss Cline in his liquid baritone. “You’re here because you impress me.”

“I am?”

“My men have been watching you. You’re a smart man, Phil. You know how to play your surroundings. You know how to speak to people to make them feel at ease. You’re too good to work down on the concrete.” He says all this still squinting. “How would you feel about moving up to the carpet?”

“But Pops . . .” he says.

“Pops is a builder and a family guy. We all love him. He’s perfectly suited for what he does, and I’d be an idiot to move him elsewhere. Besides, he’s three years from retirement. He’s aged out.”

“So there’s no position? There are no board members?”

“I am all judges,” says Boss Cline. “I’ve seen his performance.”

Phil huffs and stands broad-chested before this almighty child-man. “I’m sorry, Boss Cline, but I can’t be the OpMan. I can’t take the job you shammed over Pops.”

“OpMan? No, you have it wrong.” Boss Cline lifts a pair of tweezers from a desk drawer and holds them idly between his thumb and forefinger. “I can hire practically any numbskull for that job, so long as they can answer calls and keep the labor in check. You’re more of a thinking man. I want to put you in a suit and tie. I want you to be an executive assistant, like Larry here, only you’ll be the number one guy, the one with all the secrets.”

Phil doesn’t answer right away. He watches as Boss Cline plucks imperceptible hairs from his forearm.

“Listen, Phil, I know you have loyalties. I know those men are your brothers. But at some point, the bigger cat has to catch bigger mice if he doesn’t want to starve. Don’t sacrifice your potential.”

Boss Cline pauses for a response that Phil doesn’t give, then continues. “You are the architect of your own reality.” He plucks. He smiles. “Look at my skin—it’s vernal and soft because I fight imperfection with my little dagger.” He slashes the tweezers across a tiny swath of air.

“But I like the freedom of part-time labor,” says Phil. “I manage a record label.”

“Don’t kid yourself.” Boss Cline drops the tweezers back into the drawer. He motions for Phil to take a seat in the leather armchair to the right of his desk. He punches something into his computer’s keyboard and turns the monitor around to show Phil.

It’s a high-definition video feed of the arena floor. He zooms in on Pops, whose sagging cheeks drip with sweat. Boss Cline lifts his radio. “Pops. Come in, Pops . . . I need you to have the chairs ready in the next ten minutes. The show pros are waiting in the locker room.”

Pops glances at his watch, and Phil does the same from the office on high. Another ten minutes shaved from the prep time. On screen, Pops lowers his radio and mouths several obscenities. He raises it again.

“Ten-four.”

Back down on the floor, the rest of us hear Pops shouting new orders. The team revs into a blue-streak rhythm. We will finish, it has never happened any other way. Benny and Mr. C sprint from rack to row; Jeb wastes no movement—he’s done impressive work to keep up without Phil. And Pops leads the way.

They inhale the same breath. Phil hears the song of chairs in the deepest canal of his ears: Skreeek-kachung-tungtungtung. Skreeek-kachung-tungtungtung.

“Tell me, Phil,” says Boss Cline, “is that what freedom looks like?”

Our hero fixes his eyes on his brothers at work. He can practically hear Jeb’s rally cry: They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and will not be faint! He watches as they whoop and holler and fly into their last few rows.

Boss Cline turns the screen away. “They will succeed. You know this. Pops always succeeds.”

He hands Phil a sheet of paper that lists the starting salary. Phil has never made half as much.

“Plus VIP access to every club in town,” says Boss Cline. “And a lifetime supply of coupons for free oil changes, among other perks.”

Phil stares at the paper in his hands.

“You need time to think. Get back to me before the weekend.”

Phil nods.

“Do you have any questions?”

Phil folds the paper and tucks it into his shirt pocket. “No.”

 

VII. Cooldown on the Catwalk

After our valiant and legendary set, we pile into the elevators for a ride up to the catwalk. Mr. C stays behind, since he is afraid of heights.

After Pops rehashes the tale of the crew’s feat, we press Phil to explain his secret absence.

“The suits wanted help moving boxes.”

We scoff.

Benny takes a few trembling steps onto the metal webbing. The rest of us walk fearlessly and watch the scurry of show pros some hundred feet below.

Boss Cline radios for Pops. We gather around in anticipation.

“Great job today, my faithful man. You really impressed the committee.”

“So I have an official interview?”

“I’ll let you know before the weekend.”

Pops lowers the walkie, then raises it again. “Ten-four.”

Phil turns to the railing as we congratulate Pops on this promising news.

“Hey Phil,” says Jeb. “Aren’t you for our man?”

Phil looks over his shoulder. “Yeah, of course. Great job today.” He turns back to the arena. The show pros have readied their stances at each entrance.

“Melancholy shithead,” says Pops. He walks up behind his friend and lands a jolly slap on his back. We all stand at the rail, even Benny, who has finally made it across the webbing.

A sugary jazz blasts over the speakers. Below, a few choice audience members trickle onto the floor, escorted by ushers to their front-row seats. Then the show pros pick up their radios simultaneously, lower them simultaneously, and widen their stances.

“Here come the crazies,” whispers Phil. We lean deep into the metal at our hips.

The head show pro raises both hands in alert to his coworkers. Mere seconds pass, and then the northeast and northwest entrances spew a chaotic mob of Globex sales trainees. They rush for the front row, and while the show pros corral some, more make it past. Several people unhook chairs and bring them closer to the stage. A woman shoves a man to the ground for the last front-row seat. The 3,000 chairs fill quickly. Several people are forced to stand.

The show pros reach a state of near control, and the unhooked chairs are returned to their rows.

A hypnotic contralto, like Boss Cline’s but dipped in corn syrup, booms over the speakers and cuts the raucous chatter of the crowd, “Test, test. Okay, everybody settle down.”

The room obediently falls silent. A man in a lustrous gold jacket enters stage left and walks to the center. “Wait a second. Who are we kidding?” He sweeps his palm out over the troops who would follow him anywhere. “Ladies and gentlemen of Globex, sales-gods-in-training, who’s ready to climb to the top?”